Amazonian Manatee
(Trichechus inunguis)
The smallest member of the manatee family, the Amazonian manatee can be distinguished by its smooth rubbery skin and lack of vestigial nails on its flippers. It is the only manatee to occur exclusively in freshwater environments. The species is slow-moving and docile, and is often found feeding at the surface of the lakes and rivers it inhabits. As a result it is relatively easy to hunt, and is threatened as a result of both historical and current hunting for its meat and skin. Manatees are also at risk from pollution, accidental drowning in commercial fishing nets, and the degradation of vegetation by soil erosion resulting from deforestation.
Urgent Conservation Actions
Protection of all populations, better enforcement of hunting laws, and further research to inform management plans.
Throughout the Amazon River Basin of northern South America.
Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Sirenia
Family: Trichechidae

The sirenians (manatees and dugongs) are more closely related to elephants than to marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. They belong to an ancient radiation of African mammals known as the Afrotheria. This superorder includes seven groups of animals thought to have shared a common ancestor around 100 million years ago. These animals have little superficial resemblance to each other. Together with the sirenians and elephants, this group also includes the aardvark, hyraxes, sengis (or elephant-shrews), golden moles and tenrecs.

Sirenians are conventionally divided into four families: two, the Prorastomidae and the Protosirenidae, are extinct and known only from the Eocene, while the Dugongidae (dugongs, including Steller’s sea cow) and Trichechidae (manatees) survive today.

The fossil record of the Sirenia extends over 50 million years. The sirenians are thought to have branched off from the Proboscidea (elephants) during the Palaeocene, and quickly dispersed to the New World. The earliest known representative of the group was a pig-sized prorastomid from Jamaica from the early Eocene. This four-legged animal could walk on land, but probably spent much of its time in water. It had an extremely dense skeleton, which acted like ballast to keep the animal submerged in shallow waters. By the middle Eocene, protosirenid sea cows were abundant in North America, Europe and Asia. While the early sirenians had narrow snouts that suggested selective browsing, the muzzles had by this time broadened and became more downturned to ‘mow’ the carpets of seagrass on the ocean floor. The Dugongidae first appeared in the mid-late Eocene of the Mediterranean region. It was among these forms that the loss of the functional hind limbs took place. The manatees (Trichechidae) are the dugong’s closest living relatives. They are thought to have diverged from the Dugongidae at some time between the late Eocene and mid Oligocene.

There are three species of manatee alive today: the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis), the American or West Indian manatee (T. manatus) and the African manatee (T. senegalensis). The Amazonian manatee is thought to have become isolated when the Andes mountain range uplifted in the Pliocene 1.8-5 million years ago, changing the river drainage of the Amazon Basin from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. In 2008, Dr Marc van Roosmalen proposed that there was another species, called the 'dwarf' manatee (Trichechus pygmaeus) because it lives in shallow, fast running water and feeds on different species of aquatic plants than the Amazonian manatee. It has been suggested that because of its small range it is critically endangered, but this is not currently recognized by the IUCN.

Head-tail length: 2.5-3 m
Weight: 350-500 kg
Manatees are large, torpedo-shaped aquatic mammals with a rounded body, a small head and a squarish snout. The upper lip is covered with thick bristles and is deeply split, with each half capable of moving independently to the other. Manatees can be distinguished from dugongs mainly by their large, horizontal, paddle-shaped tails (the dugong’s tail is fluked and more whale-like). The tails of both manatees and dugongs move up and down like those of dolphins during swimming. Manatees have only six neck vertebrae, whereas nearly all other mammals have seven. Their eyes are small and not particularly well adapted to the aquatic environment, and there are no external ear openings, although they are thought to have relatively good hearing. The skin is around 5 cm thick and sparsely covered with fine hairs. The Amazonian manatee is smaller and more slender than other manatees. Its flippers are longer than in the other species and lack vestigial nails, and its skin is smooth and rubbery rather than wrinkled. Skin colour in this species is generally grey, and most individuals have a distinct white or bright pink patch on the breast.
The Amazonian manatee is completely aquatic and never leaves the water. A herbivorous species, it feeds on a large variety of aquatic and semi-aquatic vegetation such as grasses, water lettuce and water hyacinths. It consumes large quantities of vegetation, equating to 8-15% of its body weight daily. Since much of this food is of relatively low quality, manatees must spend a lot of time eating. They generally feed at the surface, and are thought to be active both night and day.

Individuals usually travel alone, or in pairs consisting of a female and her calf. In the past, the species formed large aggregations in the middle reaches of the Amazon, but such sights are rare today, with loose groups of only 4-8 individuals generally appearing together in feeding areas.

Manatees make seasonal movements synchronized with the flood regime of the Amazon Basin. They are found in flooded forests and meadows during the flood season, when food is abundant. During the July-August dry season when water levels begin to fall, some populations become restricted to the deep parts of large lakes, where they often remain until the end of the dry season in March. They are thought to fast during this period, their large fat reserves and low metabolic rates – only 36% of the usual placental mammal metabolic rate – allowing them to survive for up to seven months with little or no food. Other populations enter the main water courses during the dry period, where they can find food but must expend energy to hold their position in the current.

Breeding is thought to occur throughout the year, with peaks at different times in different parts of the river system. In the central Amazon, most births occur in February-May, during the period of rising water levels. Females give birth to a single young, after a gestation period of approximately one year. The interbirth interval is around 2-3 years. The lifespan of this species in the wild is unknown, although some individuals have lived more than twelve years in captivity.
An exclusively freshwater species, the Amazonian manatee favours blackwater lakes, oxbows and lagoons with deep connections to large rivers and abundant aquatic vegetation.
Found throughout the Amazon River Basin of northern South America, from Marajó Island (Brazil) to the sources of the Amazon Basin rivers in Columbia, Peru and Ecuador. Its range may overlap with the West Indian manatee along a portion of the Brazilian coast.
Population Estimate
The population was estimated to number at least 10,000 in 1977. The current population status is unknown.
Population Trend
Classified as Vulnerable (VU A3cd) on the 2010 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The species has suffered extensive hunting throughout its range for its meat by subsistence and commercial hunters. Commercial exploitation is thought to have led to severe declines, beginning as early as the seventeenth century. From 1935 to the mid-1950s manatees were hunted intensively for their thick hide, in addition to their meat. The hide was highly sought after, and was made into heavy-duty leather for machine belts, pulleys and hoses. Although the industry collapsed about 1954 when synthetic alternatives became available, some 4,000-10,000 manatees were killed per year during that period in Brazil alone. Despite laws designed to protect the manatee, both commercial and subsistence hunting continues at potentially unsustainable levels throughout the species’ range. Current threats to the species include accidental drowning in commercial fishing nets, and the degradation of vegetation by soil erosion resulting from deforestation. In addition, the indiscriminate release of mercury in mining activities threatens the entire aquatic ecosystem of the Amazon Basin.
Conservation Underway

The species is listed on Appendix I of CITES and has been protected legally in Brazil since 1973, although subsistence hunting and commercial exploitation both here and in other parts of the species’ range has continued. In Ecuador, the Siona Indians - traditional hunters of the manatee - have a self-imposed ban on taking the species because of its low numbers. However, the species is hunted by other settlers and the military, even within protected areas. There is a national Conservation Action Plan specific to manatees in Colombia, and the species is currently included in a Brazilian Conservation Action Plan for aquatic mammals. However, there is a strong need for a collaborative regional strategy to protect the species. Most research to date has focused on Brazilian populations, with captive studies having been carried out since the 1980s, and long-term studies into manatee movement patterns since 1993. Valuable information on habitat use and migratory routes has been collected, which will be used to develop a management plan for the species in the Amazon Basin. Reintroduction attempts in Brazil and Colombia have had partial success, and some manatees have been born in captivity. Educational programmes are currently underway in Brazil to raise awareness about the importance of conserving this species. 


More recently, a ‘National Action Plan for the Conservation of Sirenia’ has been implemented in Brazil. Based on research completed in 2006 by the Special Working Group for Aquatic Mammals and the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources amongst others, this multi-million pound, 5 year conservation plan began in 2010. Coordinated by the National Centre for Research and Conservation of Aquatic Mammals (CMA), this scheme aims to significantly reduce hunting and illegal trade of the Amazonian Manatee whilst also combating pollution and destruction of important mangrove habitat.

Conservation Proposed
Many Amazonian manatees are found in Brazil where limited funding is available for research. However, further research into abundance, migrations and habitat requirements is also needed in other parts of the species’ range in order to create effective management plans. All populations should be protected, and stronger enforcement of hunting laws is needed throughout the species’ range.
Colares, I. G., Colares, E. P. 2002. Food plants eaten by Amazonian manatees (Trichechus inunguis, Mammalia: Sirenia). Brazilian Archives of Biology and Technology 45(1): 67-72.

Marmontel, M. 2008. Trichechus inunguis. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. www.iucnredlist.org. Downloaded on 14 November 2010.

Martins Cantanhede, A., Ferreira Da Silva, V. M., Pires Farias, I. Hrbek, T., Lazzarinis, S. M. and Alves-Gomes, J. 2005. Phylogeography and population genetics of the endangered Amazonian manatee, Trichechus inunguis Natterer, 1883 (Mammalia, Sirenia). Molecular Ecology 14(2): 401-413.

Nowak, R.M. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World.Sixth edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Sirenia Specialist Group 1996. Trichechus inunguis. In: IUCN 2006. 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 05 January 2007.

Timm, R. M., Albuja, V. L. and Clauson, B.L. 1986. Ecology, distribution, harvest and conservation of the Amazonian manatee Trichechus inunguis in Ecuador. Biotropica 18(2): 150-156.

Sirenews. October 2005. The newsletter of the IUCN/SSC Sirenia Specialist Group. Number 44.

Sirenews. April 2006. The newsletter of the IUCN/SSC Sirenia Specialist Group. Number 45.

Distribution map based on data provided by the IUCN Global Mammal Assessment.

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