Manatee FAQ: Food and Water

Q. What are manatees' favorite food?
Manatees are herbivores (plant-eaters), feeding on a large variety of submerged, emergent, and floating plants. Seagrass beds and freshwater submerged aquatic vegetation are important feeding sites for manatees.

Manatees can eat 10 - 15% of their body weight in vegetation daily. A 453-kilogram (1,000-pound) manatee, for example, would probably eat between 45-68 kilograms (100 - 150 pounds) of food a day.
When feeding, manatees use their prehensile upper lip to grasp vegetation. (Photo © Patrick M. Rose, SMC)

Listed below are some main types of marine and freshwater vegetation in Florida that manatees prefer to eat. Click on the links to see photos and more information on some of the vegetation types courtesy of the Smithsonian Marine Station at Ft. Pierce, FL.

Marine Vegetation

Syringodium filiforme
Manatee grass

Thalassia testudinum/
Turtle grass

Halodule wrightii/Shoal grass

Ruppia maritima
/Widgeon grass

Freshwater Vegetation

Hydrilla verticillata

Vallisneria neotropicalis
/Tapegrass, Eelgrass

Eichhornia crassipes
/Water hyacinth

Pistia stratiotes/
Water lettuce

*Non-native, or exotic, vegetation

Q. I have heard that some manatees eat something called manatee grass. What is it and where does it grow?
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Q. What do manatees eat, and why is romaine lettuce used for their diet in captivity?
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Q. How deep down can manatees go to find food or do they have to keep close to the shore?
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We were at Blue Spring State Park this winter, and I saw a manatee chewing on a tree. Is this unusual?
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Q. Do manatees in salt water need to drink fresh water?
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Do manatees drink salt water?
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Q. Would high glucose supplements help keep manatees warm during cold weather?
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Q. Do manatees ever eat plankton or small fish?
Although manatees are herbivores, sometimes sea squirts, mollusks or any of several species of zooplankton can be inadvertenly eaten while the manatee feeds on seagrasses.

Q. How much does a manatee eat in one day?
It is estimated that a manatee can eat about 10-15% of their body weight in vegetation daily. So, for example, a 453-kilogram (1,000-pound) manatee would probably eat between 45-68 kilograms (100-150 pounds) of food a day!

Q. Where are manatees found in the food chain?
Manatees are primary feeders (plant-eaters). They feed directly off of plants. They are comparable to ungulates like deer or cattle who are browsing or grazing animals. Unlike their land counterparts however, manatees have no natural predators.

Q. If manatees are herbivores, why do they weigh so much?
A. Although manatees look fat, they actually have very little body fat for an aquatic mammal. Remember, they are a tropical species and have no need for body fat to keep them warm. A large percentage of the manatee’s body is taken up by the gut tract which contains the stomach and intestines etc. Researchers believe that the manatee's large 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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