It would be easy to re-enact 90% of my experience with the manatees of Florida’s Gulf Coast. All I would need to do is submerge some large potatoes in a tub of water and surround it with a throng of Lego people. The Lego form to my left would be my daughter, my partner in crime on this Florida adventure, while the rest would be various refugees from Star Wars, Pirate, and other play sets. O.K., this isn’t fair -and I realize it – but because of the commercial nature of Homosassa Springs it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the manatees on “display” there are wild animals. It is the perfect Habitat for Humanity and Huge Manatees. Ignore the crowds and their comments and you will discover fascination with the potato- beasts in the water below.
The manatees of Florida need to cluster around warm springs and power plant discharges during the winter. They cannot withstand temperatures below 68 degrees F. The waters of Homosassa Spring are consistently 72 degrees F and offer a winter spa opportunity for these essentially tropical beasts. The spring waters flow into the Homosassa River and journey a short distance to the Gulf but the cold-season manatees stick tight to the sandy bottom of the outflow.
A small herd of about 12 animals was present on the day of our visit. Most of them were lying motionless and spud-like on the bottom. One large cow and her calf ventured out into, and returned from, the open river during our time there (prompting a nearby dad to proclaim “Look there’s a calf and a baby” to his young daughter. She reminded him that he meant to say “calf and cow” and he remained silent for the next ten minute). The only other visible action involved a bob to the surface every few minutes for a breath of fresh air through their nostrils. The nose holes are controlled by a muscle which opens then seals them shut before the creature submerges.
From above the most – in fact the only – distinctive feature of their body outline were the large flattened tails. It was surprising (to me, anyway) that very few of them displayed any large nicks or notches in these rubbery appendages and only one displayed significant boat prop scars. The eyes were visible only as small puckers located among the face folds. Because their eyelids are circular affairs this creates the delightful star eyed look so popular on the million or so figurines and manatee toys for sale at the nearby gift shop.
Manatees (West Indian Manatees to be precise) are remotely related to the elephants and because of this ancestry they can claim a source for their bulk (up to around 1,200 pounds and 12 feet long), vegetarian diet, and their tooth arrangement. Like elephants they have a procession of teeth that migrate forth like a conveyor belt. Old worn teeth are shed off the leading edge as newer teeth join the row from the back. There are never more than 6 teeth in each jaw at any time.
Wikipedia, that e-spring of flowing facts, figures, and fallacies offers the fascinating tidbit that the name Manatee originated from the Caribbean (Taiho) Indians who called them “Manati.” According to this source the name translates simply into “breast.” I’m not sure what to say about this. Hopefully it means something more expansive like “Hairy fish with breasts” and acknowledges that unique mammalian trait. Perhaps it actually means “potato” – who knows?
Now, so much for the Manatees. Since I can’t add anything original to this part of the discussion I’d like to switch habitats to a mangrove swamp adjacent to the clear blue waters of the gulf. At one corner of the grove the white sands of the beach at … (I can’t remember where!)… were occupied by a herd of tiny sand crabs. Enjoying their opportunity to feed on exposed flats they busily scuttled into and out of their burrows.
Although I can’t say which species, I can say that they were Fiddler Crabs – probably of the genus Uca. I can also say that all of the individuals in this cluster were mostly females because they lacked the large fiddle claws. I certainly don’t say these things with ultimate authority but will say it none-the-less. One character of note is the figure of a “dancing cat man” on their carapace (back) which led me to the above conclusions. Can you see it?… sure you can… It’s right there like a Rorschach ink blot. It’s amazing what the hot tropical sun can do to the thoughts of a northern naturalist.
During high water the dancing crabs retreat into J-shaped burrows. They emerge at low tide to clean out their digs and feed. The larger sand balls clustered around the burrow entrances are the result of digging while the smaller balls are the result of feeding. They roll the grains about to scour off bits of algae and diatoms from the surface.
In and out, out and in, they reacted to every movement from above – unlike the manatees who reacted to nothing from above. I must admit that the crabs were far more entertaining than the manatees but acknowledge to each has its own habit and habitat.
Behold the Dancing Cat Man!