Do Manatees Have Fingernails?
David R. Schrichte manatee photo xray of manatee flipper
The reason manatees have fingernails is because they were once land animals and had forelimbs for walking on land. As you can see in the x-ray photo above, the bone structure of a manatee's flipper looks very similar to a human hand. (Manatee photo © David R. Schrichte)

Q. Is it true that manatees actually have fingernails? If it is true, how many do they have and why do they have them?
--Will D'Antoni, Maryland

A. Yes manatees do have fingernails. They typically have about three to four nails on each flipper. However, only West African and West Indian manatees, including our very own Florida manatee, have fingernails. The Amazonian manatee and the dugong do not have fingernails. Dr. Daryl P. Domning, an expert on the evolution of sirenians and a member of Save the Manatee Club's Board of Directors explains this difference: "One could speculate that the nails might be helpful in preventing abrasion of the edges of the flippers when the animals use them to 'walk' along the sea bottom, as West Indian and West African manatees sometimes do; whereas the other species might do this less. Or loss of the nails may have been for no directly adaptive reason. Since the nails (if any) of fossil sirenians have not been preserved, we can't trace the actual time and circumstances of their loss."

West Indian and West African manatees sometimes use their flippers to "walk" along the water bottom. (Photo © Patrick M. Rose, Save the Manatee Club)



Having fingernails is one of the many characteristics showing the similarities between manatees and their land relative, elephants. Elephants also have three to four nails on each of their feet, like our toenails. The reason manatees have fingernails is because they were once land animals and had forelimbs for walking on land. As you can see in the above photograph, the bone structure of a manatee's flipper looks very similar to a human hand. Their flippers are simply the evolution from forelimbs that once had fingernails, which they have retained over the years.

--Courtney Edwards
Staff Biologist, Save the Manatee Club

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