Are Manatees Fat?

David Schrichte manatee photo
Although manatees are big, they actually have very little body fat.


Q. : Manatees look really fat, but as they are not (after all, they feel the cold), is this "fattiness" actually muscles?

--Larissa Langhi, Brazil

A. Although manatees are big, they actually have very little body fat. Aquatic mammals that live in cold areas or deep water have developed better insulation than manatees require in their tropical home. A large percentage of the manatee’s body is taken up by the gastrointestinal tract, which contains the stomach and intestines. In fact, the gastrointestinal tract accounts for about 20% of the manatee’s body mass, and it produces heat as food is digested, which helps manatees stave off the cold in the winter. Researchers believe that the manatee's size probably evolved as a result of being aquatic and having a herbivorous (plant-eating) diet. The plants manatees eat have a low nutritional value, so they make up for that by eating large quantities of them.

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