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Mermaids in Nature

By: Paula Barja

Photo: Darryl Stansbury/Wikimedia

Photo: Darryl Stansbury/Wikimedia

Are there really mermaids out there? In fact, we could even say that... yes, there are! At the time of the European discovery of the Americas (the 15th century), Columbus wrote in his diary that he saw mermaids and that they were not as pretty as he expected. Actually, what Columbus saw was a manatee. For a long time, manatees were thought to be mermaids, probably because of their fish-like tails and their breasts, which can look like the breasts of a woman. That is why manatees are also called "Sirenia" ("siren" is another word for mermaid).

Now that you know that mermaids are actually just manatees, here's a question: is it a fish or a mammal? The manatee (or sea cow, another name for it) is an aquatic mammal. They live in the water and, like cows, they are herbivores (that is, they only eat plants).

Manatees are very docile and live in rivers, estuaries and seas. The marine species can measure up to four meters (13 feet) and weigh 800 kilos (1,750 pounds). The fresh-water species (which exists only in the Amazon) is smaller, measuring up to 2.5 meters (8 feet) and weighing as much as 300 kilos (660 pounds). They are very hungry and can spend up to eight hours a day just eating. They can eat about 10% of their body weight per day (for instance, a 660-pound manatee can eat as much as 66 pounds of food every day!).

Photo: Ahodges/Wikimedia

Photo: Ahodges/Wikimedia

Manatees live very long lives, about 50 years, but they can be as old as 60 years of age. Unfortunately, the lives of such docile animals have been shortened because of humans. Therefore, all Sirenia species have been considered endangered. One of them is extinct. Hunting manatees has been prohibited since 1971, but even today they are captured for their meat, oil and skin. Moreover, many of these animals get stuck on fishing nets and end up drowning. Since manatees live in shallow waters, close to the coast, they also suffer with the pollution and are often run over by boats.

But not all is lost. In Brazil, in 1980, the Manatee Project was created. The project rescues animals, takes care of them and reintroduces them to their natural environment, as well as breeds them in captivity. Did you like the manatees? Do you want to know more about the Manatee Project? Their headquarters are in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, at the city of Itamaracá. They also have other three bases in Mamanguape (Paraíba), Pirapoeira (Alagoas) and Cajueiro da Praia (Piauí).

See also:

The manatee and its "cousins"

See also:

Sirenian International

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