Manatees Visit Warm Waters of North Carolina | The Institute for Creation Research

Manatees Visit Warm Waters of North Carolina
During July 4th weekend, manatees made a patriotic appearance on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.1,2

Manatees stopped to visit the Outer Banks over the holiday weekend, showing up in the canals of Colington. … The manatee is [a] protected marine mammal and any sightings should be reported to the [U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service]. Last year, there were several sightings of manatees along the Outer Banks and into Virginia Beach through late fall, with one manatee death in Virginia Beach likely due to cold-water stress.2

These gentle giants, sometimes called “sea cows,” have a body shape that somewhat resembles a walrus or seal, but manatees are quite different from other marine mammals, such as pinnipeds and cetaceans.3,4 One major difference is their diet—manatees are vegetarians (herbivores).

Imagine an underwater world where cows and turtles gently graze on lush, grassy, tree-lined meadows, surfacing every few minutes to take a breath before they slowly descend back to the nutrient-rich fields. Science fiction? Not for a manatee. Manatees, or sea cows, are gentle giants who live in peaceful coastal and inland waterways. Their serene world is a far cry from the fast-paced life of the open ocean. … Manatees have a sensitive trunk like an elephant’s, only shorter; they digest their food like horses; and they have sensory hairs over their entire body, like cats and dogs have [whiskers] on their faces. They also continually replace their teeth like sharks.5

In fact, manatees eat up to 10% of their body weight daily in aquatic plants (including waterway-choking “pest plants” water hyacinth and hydrilla) growing in saltwater, freshwater, and brackish estuaries.3,4

Like all animals, manatees need relevant information about their environment. Their continuous environmental tracking systems include an amazing complex of whiskers that send tactile data to their brains for interpretation. While some animals use echolocation of electrical signal detection, manatees use literally thousands of whiskers to feel what exists at their immediate location.

The technical name for these whiskers is vibrissae. Many mammals have sensitive vibrissae. Your cat or dog has about 50 on its face, and squirrels have vibrissae on their paws, elbows, and knees. But the manatee is the only creature that has vibrissae on its face and spread all over its body. About 600 fine vibrissae are concentrated near their mouths, with nearly 1,500 thicker ones on their faces and another 3,000 on their bodies. Some vibrissae on the face are connected to over 50 nerve cells each, making them extremely sensitive. Fascinatingly, researchers have also found dedicated bundles of nerves in the brain associated with each individual vibrissa! Manatees clearly use their vibrissae to feel plants on the bottom of the waterways, and sometimes they use very thick, stiff vibrissae to actually grab a plant and pull it out of the seafloor. But they appear to use their body vibrissae to sense movement in the environment….5

Manatees are usually associated with Florida,1 yet these seafaring sirenians are known to migrate along the Atlantic seacoast, as far north as New York or Massachusetts, as well as along the Gulf of Mexico as far as Galveston Bay.

Manatees are perhaps best known as a facet of Florida wildlife, but summer migrations takes these marine mammals up as far north as Massachusetts waters, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The animals are described as gentle and slow moving and considering "most of their time is spent eating, resting, and traveling," we must say they're living the good life.1

Manatees are typically located in coastal areas, inhabiting rivers, estuaries, marshes, and inlets; occasionally they are observed in the sea. The species are intolerant of cold water. Winter temperatures restrict the Florida manatee to 1 of 25 warm-water refugia, 16 of which are artificial. In warmer months, many animals travel further north and are routinely sighted in Georgia and South Carolina on the east coast, and in Mississippi and Louisiana on the gulf coast. Extralimital [i.e., range expansion illustrating] sightings have increased over the last few years as evidenced by recent sightings at Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, Long Island in New York, and Galveston Bay in Texas.3

Manatees are famous for their resilient immune system. They frequently inhabit warm, oxygen-depleted, slow-moving coastal waters that contain parasites (including trematodes, coccidians, and nematodes), contagious viruses, plus opportunities for flesh injuries. For these reasons, the manatee’s immune system is impressively robust.3,4,6

In fact, the manatee’s immune system has been studied to discover how it is generally so strong and efficient, yet has exceptional vulnerabilities.6,7

Based on their life history, manatees … are robust, long-lived species and appear remarkably resilient to natural disease and the effects of human-related injury and trauma. These characteristics might be the result of an efficient and responsive immune system compared to other marine mammals. Although relatively immune to infectious agents, manatees face other potentially serious threats, including epizoötic [i.e., animal epidemic] diseases and pollution while in large aggregations.3

Due to their susceptibility to red-tide algae-produced neurotoxins, manatees can function as ecosystem sentinels, serving as alarms when conditions go toxic.

Manatees can serve as excellent sentinels [like canaries in coal mines] of harmful algal blooms due to their high sensitivity, specifically to brevetoxicosis [neurotoxicity from dinoflagellate algae Ptychodiscus breve], which has caused at least two major die-offs in recent times. Threats to manatees worldwide, such as illegal hunting and boat collisions, are increasing.3

Meanwhile, these serene sirenians live out their peaceful lives as best they can in this fallen world.5

Like so many of God’s amazing animals, manatees remind us that we live in a fallen creation that is “good-yet-groaning”— displaying God’s caring Creatorship, while simultaneously awaiting the ultimate redemption of creation that can only occur when the Lord Jesus Christ restores our planet.8

1. Blumberg, P. O. Manatees were Spotted on the Outer banks during the Holiday Weekend. Southern Living. Posted on July 7, 2020, accessed July 16, 2020.
2. Pugh, K. Manatees Make Annual Appearance on the Outer Banks. OBX Today. Posted on July 6, 2020, accessed July 16, 2020.
3. Bonde, R. K., A. A. Aguirre, and J. Powell. 2004. Manatees as Sentinels of Marine Ecosystem Health: Are They the 2000-pound Canaries? EcoHealth. 1: 255-262.
4. Whitaker Jr., J. O. 1998. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals, revised edition. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 805-808, Plates # 366 and 367. See also Johnson, J. J. S. Orphaned Manatee Rescued in Florida Keys. Creation Science Update. Posted on May 14, 2020, accessed July 16, 2020.
5. Francis, J. Cows of the Sea. Answers in Genesis. Posted on July 1, 2014, accessed July 16, 2020. Besides providing fascinating bioengineering details about how God made manatees, Dr. Francis also recognizes that evolutionary notions of its origin don’t fit the real-world evidence: “According to old-earth scenarios such as evolution, some manatee groups have been around for several million years in ocean waters. But such slow animals are in constant danger of being eaten. In fact, in the eighteenth century, the Steller’s sea cow (a relative of manatees that lived in cold waters near Alaska and the Bering Strait), was hunted to extinction in just thirty years. It certainly seems that young-earth creation better explains the survival of seemingly defenseless, slow-moving creatures like the lumbering manatee.”
6. Bando, M., I. V. Larkin, S. D. Wright, et al. 2014. Diagnostic Stages of the Parasites of the Florida Manatee, Trichechus manatus latirostris. Journal of Parasitology. 100: 133–138. See also Walsh, C. J., J. E. Stuckey, H. Cox, et al. 2007. Production of Nitric Oxide by Peripheral Blood Mononuclear Cells from the Florida Manatee, Trichechus manatus latirostris. Veterinary Immunology & Immunopathology. 118(3-4): 199-209.
7. Walsh, C. J., M. Butawan, J. Yordy, et al. 2015. Sublethal Red Tide Toxin Exposure in Free-ranging Manatees (Trichechus manatus) Affects the Immune System through Reduced Lymphocyte Proliferation Responses, Inflammation, and Oxidative Stress. Aquatic Toxicology. 161:73–84. See also Pittman, C. Manatees that Survive Red Tide May Suffer Immune Problems. Tampa Bay Times. Posted on November 17, 2013, accessed July 16, 2020. According to Pittman, “In the past, Red Tide has killed manatees because they breathed in its toxins when they surfaced for air … [but in 2013] biologists said manatees had consumed toxins after [Red Tide algae] settled onto sea grass they ate.”
8. Romans 8:19-22. See also Johnson, J. J. S. 2010. Misreading Earth's Groanings. Acts & Facts. 39(8): 8-9.

*Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Apologetics and Chief Academic Officer at the Institute for Creation Research.
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