There is much evidence of elephant mother and baby bonding and the maternal love shown by the female cow elephant touches the heart. But less known is the bond between a distant relative of the elephant, manatees. Thought to have evolved from four-legged land mammals more than 60 million years ago, the closest living relative of the manatee is elephants.
Like their ancestors of millions of years ago, manatees are some of the most dedicated mothers known in the natural world. With a gestation period of a year a single young is born underwater and the mother must help it to the surface so that it can take its first breath; infants start to swim on their own an hour or so later. It takes a further 12-18 months to wean the calf and the mother looks after and cares for her young for several years longer. No wonder there is an incredible mother-young relationship.
Sailors report seeing mermaids
Not conforming to the conventional idea of beauty, we think that manatees are utterly charming and certainly endearing. However, it takes a leap of imagination to believe how, for centuries, sailors have reported seeing mermaids which were undoubtedly manatees (or dugongs). It was Christopher Columbus, who first (in 1492), reported encountering manatee ‘mermaids’. He wrote:
“The day before, when the Admiral was going to the Rio del Oro, he said he saw three mermaids who came quite high out of the water but were not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they looked like men. He said that he saw some in Guinea on the coast of Manegueta.”.
Mermaid mythology preceded this sighting by centuries so sailors who had little to look at on long voyages could be excused for keeping a look-out in the hope that they may see them. It might seem unlikely that a slow-moving, blubbery sea cow could be confused with a beautiful, fish-tailed maiden. Yet it was a common enough mistake which is confirmed by the scientific name for manatees and dugongs – Sirenia, (from Sirens of Greek mythology) a name reminiscent of mythical mermaids. It’s true that manatees and dugongs are both known to rise out of the sea like the alluring sirens of Greek myth, occasionally performing “tail stands” in shallow water, and sometimes their heads are covered with sea grasses, which, from a distance might look like long tresses of hair. Added to this, their forelimbs contain five sets of fingerlike bones, and neck vertebrae that allow them to turn their heads, so perhaps it is not beyond the realms of possibility that manatees could be mistaken for humans from afar
Manatee Appreciation Day: 25 March
Manatee Appreciation Day is observed annually on the last Wednesday of March.
What we do know is that manatees are for real, and they are struggling to survive in the sea. Manatees are easily injured or killed due to their large size and generally slow pace, which makes them vulnerable to being hit by motorboats and caught in fishing nets. Some toxins from algae can also endanger their lives.
Help us save manatees with our latest appeal in Colombia
World Land Trust (WLT) is saving an Endangered subspecies of the West Indian Manatee, which survives in the wetlands of the middle and low Magdalena river valley in Colombia.
You can appreciate your mother and manatees in March by donating to the Trust’s current appeal to save the Forests and Wetlands of Barbacoas.