|1135460. Sun May 31, 2015 3:05 pm
Though they look like a cross between a dolphin and a walrus, they are closely related to neither. Their alternative name, “sea cow”, is also misleading in evolutionary terms. (Whales and cows are, however, related. As it happens, seekoei or “sea cow” is the Afrikaans name for the hippo, see being either a lake or sea, and, coincidentally, hippopotamuses are whales’ closest extant relatives. The English language implicitly recognises whales’ ungulate affinity, terming them bulls, cows and calves.)
The manatee, and its Indian Ocean cousin, the dugong, are better described as sea elephants. They are also related to the elephant shrew, an animal blessed with a descriptive and serendipitously taxonomically accurate common name. (The elephant shrews are rather pretty beasts too, especially Rhynchocyon petersi.)
There are three species of manatee: one found in coastal waters round the Caribbean, another in equatorial Africa, and one which lives exclusively on the Amazon. They stick to shallow water, where they eat sea grass and other vegetation. True to their “sea cow” monicker, they have been seen pulling halfway out of the water to eat grass cuttings.
Manatees and dugongs are the only herbivorous sea mammals (though there are reports of manatees snacking on the odd fish and even dead seagulls). Together, manatee and dugong make up the order sirenia, so named as it is believed that they account for some sightings of mermaids.
Manatees are not timid and will follow alligators out of curiosity, though the alligators leave them alone. Their curiosity and slow speed does them no favours with boat propellers and nets, however, and manatee numbers are decreasing.
Perhaps, then, this is better left unsaid: manatees are both delicious and easy to catch.
We can only hope that they do not go the way of Steller’s sea cow, a sirenian which was hunted to extinction just 27 years after its discovery by Europeans in its last holdout, the Commander Islands in the Bering Straits. At one time Steller’s sea cow lived all round the Pacific but the unfortunate beast was completely tame and, to make matters worse, it could barely submerge itself. Huge, bulky and up to nine meters long, it was a friendly floating meat locker.
“Oh, the huMANATEE!” you might quip (punning on a phrase that was popularised by a radio correspondent’s live coverage of the Hindenberg Disaster).
Better than snacking on a sirenian, one might manicure a manatee, as they have the requisite fingernails. Under an x-ray, their front flippers look remarkably like human hands too.
Handily enough, those flippers also taste like veal. And, much as happened with the beaver and the giant riparian rodent, the capybara, local Catholic authorities have deemed the manatee to theologically be fish, and thus suitable fodder for fast days.
Don’t stick a fork in a living manatee, however: they are not as blubbery as they seem, being swollen by vast volumes of digestive gases produced from the masses of vegetation they eat. Manatees fart a lot, probably to control buoyancy.
This site is a massive index of books which refer to manatees.
References to Columbus’s sighting of mermaids can be found here, along with such gems as:
A true reportory of the wracke, Strachley, William (1625)
|“[the meat of the sea turtle is] like the Manati at Saint Dominique, which made the Spanish Friars (at their first arrivall) make some scruple to eate them on a Friday, because in Colour and taste the flesh is like to morsells of Veale.”
Historie, Ferdinand Columbus, chapter 89, in reference to his father, Christopher Columbus’s voyages:
|"The other fish was taken [near Azua, Dominican Republic] through another device; the Indians call it the manati, and there are none of that kind in Europe. It is as big as a calf, resembling one both in color and flavor, except that perhaps it is somewhat better and fatter. Therefore, those who declare that there are in the sea all sorts of creatures which live on land, say that these fishes are real calves, since inside they are nothing like a fish, and feed only on the grass they find along shore." |
It is easy to find references to their taste both here and on Google Books.
The Manatee Scientists: Saving Vulnerable Species, Peter Lourie (2011)
(Google Books search and Google Ngram check on the phrase, “Oh, the humanity”, double checking the timeline of the phrase’s emergence)
The Sea and Its Living Wonders: A Popular Account of the Marvels of the Deep, Dr Georg Hartwig (1873), pp117-118:
|“Humbolt [a noted German biologist] compares the [manatee, presumably Amazonian species] flesh to ham and von Martius [a German botanist and explorer] says he never tasted better meat in the Brazils. The South American monks, who have their own ideas on the classification of animals, consider it as fish, and fare sumptuously upon it during Lent. Besides its flesh, one single animal gives as much as 4000 bottles of oil, which is used both in cookery and for lighting. The thick hide is cut into stripes, from which straps or whips are made, to flog the unfortunate negroes. Useful in many respects, defenceless and easy to kill…” |
Also relevant, in terms of species eaten to extinction:
On the great auk, too interesting not to include but a little off topic (citation in the above Wikipedia page):
|“If you come for their Feathers you do not give yourself the trouble of killing them, but lay hold of one and pluck the best of the Feathers. You then turn the poor Penguin adrift, with his skin half naked and torn off, to perish at his leasure. This is not a very humane method but it is the common practize. While you abide on this island you are in the constant practize of horrid cruelties for you not only skin them Alive, but you burn them Alive also to cook their Bodies with. You take a kettle with you into which you put a Penguin or two, you kindle a fire under it, and this fire is absolutely made of the unfortunate Penguins themselves. Their bodys being oily soon produce a Flame; there is no wood on the island.” |