Are Manatees in Belize and Florida
the Same or Different?

Dr. Maggie Hunter with Ariel the manatee during a health assessment at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Florida. (Photo courtesy USGS Sirenia Project.)

Q. Are the manatees in Belize the same species found in Florida? What are the other different types of manatee species around the world?
--Erin Crump, California

A. The Florida and Belize manatee are considered two separate subspecies of the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus). The Florida manatee is part of the Florida subspecies (T. m. latirostris), found throughout the southeastern United States, while the Belize manatee is part of the Antillean subspecies (T. m. manatus), found in river and coastal habitats in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Subspecies are a geographical subunit that is genetically different from other populations of the species. The two West Indian subspecies have been designated by differences in skull measurements and genetic changes. Our recent genetic studies, using highly informative microsatellite DNA, have shown that the Florida and Belize manatee populations are very different from one another and in fact do not travel or mix together (Hunter et al., 2010, in press). Future genetic studies will look at Antillean manatee populations in other countries to find isolated populations that may be in need of further conservation actions.

The related species of the West Indian manatee include the Amazonian manatee, the West African manatee and the more distantly related dugong (found in Australia, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and East Africa). Additionally, the Stellerís sea cow was found in the North Pacific and grew up to 30 feet long. Unfortunately, the Stellar's sea cow was hunted to extinction within 27 years of its discovery in 1741. You can get more information on these various species at the Sirenians of the World page.

--Dr. Maggie Hunter
Sirenia Project, U.S. Geological Survey
Gainesville, Florida

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