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Manatees: When Push Comes to Shove

By Mel White
April 2, 2013; 9:38 AM ET
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All content for this article is from the April issue of National Geographic magazine. Read the full story

credit: National Geographic

"Is a manatee ugly? Pretty is as pretty does, the saying goes, and a manatee does what it does very well. Its big, dense bones make it buoyancy neutral in the water; evolution didn't consider that those bones would make it more likely to die from serious boat strikes. That flat, wrinkled face is as sensitive and muscular as a human tongue, perfectly adapted to allow a manatee to feed on aquatic grasses. Those strange hairs all over its face? They're vibrissae, like the ones cats and dogs have, connected to sensors that relay the slightest tactile impulse to the brain. Cats and dogs have about 50 vibrissae on their faces; a manatee has 600.

It's not the manatee's fault that it evolved in an environment with abundant food and no predators, so that it became unwary and vulnerable, so that its survival depends on our regard for it, our willingness to share this crowded planet."

The Florida manatee is thriving in Kings Bay, and so is tourism. © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

Manatees swim close to the water's surface because they are air-breathing mammals. They use their stiff facial bristles to guide food into their mouths. © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

Propeller scars mark this manatee-graphic evidence of a too-close encounter with a boat. About one in four of Florida's 360 manatee deaths in 2012 resulted from collisions. Slow-speed zones help, but some boaters resent the restrictions. © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

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