Manatees; July 1994; Scientific American Magazine; by O'Shea; 7 Page(s)
Once upon a time, a young maiden was bathing by the banks of a river. Startled by the sight of approaching men, she jumped in, covering her bottom with a fan. Shyness then doomed her to a life in water : the maiden became a manatee, her fan metamorphosing into its distinctive spatulate tail.
So runs a legend from Mali in West Africa, echoing curiously the origins of manatees as mammals who left the land for a life in sea and river. Whereas myriad tales in native cultures from Africa to the Americas tell of manatees, only recently are the beasts yielding their secrets to scientific inquiry. Among their unique adaptations to life as marine herbivores are an unending supply of teeth--constantly replenishing worn ones--and an anomalously low metabolic rate that allows them to fast for up to seven months. Ponderous and slow, manatees have humans as their only enemy.