The West Indian Manatee
Is An Amazing Creature

It's the basis for the mermaid legends of old.

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The manatee, or sea cow, is one of the world's most unusual and fascinating animals. It is a creature of legend as much as fact. When Christopher Columbus sighted a manatee in 1493, he mistook the docile, dumpy-looking manatee for a mermaid.

Today, we know quite a bit more about the manatee's true nature than Columbus did.

Manatees, now an endangered species, have a long and remarkable history. They are descended from a four-footed land animal living in Africa and Eurasia which abandoned the land for the sea an estimated 55 to 60 million years ago.

t's theorized this creature made such a dramatic shift because of increased competition for food and space.

The animal adapted well to its new marine environment, remained an air-breathing creature and became so specialized it could never return to land.

Today, the animal--?whose closest living relative is the elephant--?uses a broad, beaver-like tail to propel it through the water. The front legs, no longer of much practical use, have transformed into a pair of flippers.

That, according to the most accepted theory, is how the manatee came into being. If all this sounds far-fetched, you can see for yourself the manatees' land-based heritage: Examine the tips of each of the front flippers. The pectoral flippers always contain three to four vestigial fingernails that look remarkably like an elephant's.

Furthermore, manatees and elephants, herbivores which eat plants, have a similar tooth structure.

Manatees, like whales, dolphins and seals, are marine mammals. Manatees, however, are unrelated to whales or seals, although manatees do have something of a whale's body and a seal's head. Instead, manatees along with the dugong, are members of the order called sirenia.

At one time the order had a dozen members; only four survive today. Scientists are not sure why sirenian diversity declined. Availability of aquatic vegetation and/or competition with other marine herbivores and climate change may all have had roles.

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