Manatees in Belize - Evolutionary Orphans: The Pulse of the Planet daily radio program offers free legal online mp3 downloads, exploring the world of sound in nature, culture and science, with audio adventures, world music, extraordinary sound portraits, science diaries, and nature ring-tones; an amazing sonic experience.

Airdate: Mar 23, 2004
Scientist: Caryn Self-Sullivan

Manatees in Belize - Evolutionary Orphans

Manatees in Belize - Evolutionary Orphans
Off the coast of Belize, researchers are studying one of the last intact populations of West Indian manatees.

Manatees in Belize - Evolutionary Orphans

Music; Ambience: Manatees following research boat

Imagine a hairless thousand-pound creature, lazily munching away underwater on sea grass and surfacing every once in a while for a whiff of air. Although it looks a bit like a bloated, pink seal or walrus, it's not related to those animals. In fact, scientists say, it's pretty much unlike anything else on earth. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. We're listening to the sounds of manatees, recorded underwater off the coast of Belize. Caryn Self-Sullivan studies these large marine mammals and she says they spend most of their time searching for food in rivers and coastal waters.

"Manatees are herbivores which means they're plant eaters, they're like vegetarians. However several species of manatees move freely between the marine environment and the freshwater environment where they'll eat both floating plants and some shoreline plants."

Manatees are a kind of evolutionary mystery. They're members of a rapidly vanishing group of animals that make up the scientific order "Sirenia."

"Now that's comparable to saying that primates covers the order of human beings and chimpanzees and great apes, that's the level we're talking about. However there are 70 some species of dolphins and whales left in the world, there are 200 and some species of primates left in the world and there are only 4 species of manatees... left in the world. Their closest living relative strangely enough is the elephant. And DNA studies have found some links between the elephant and the manatee. However, these links are probably much more than 50 million years old so they don't have any close living relatives."

We'll hear more about efforts to conserve manatees in future programs. Pulse of the Planet is presented by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner.