Underdogs of the Animal World: Sea Cow
The first thing you need to know about sea cows is that their nickname is accurate. I know right? Sea cows are so called because they spend their days hanging around in underwater fields, chomping on underwater grass and being jolly pleased about it. They’re basically sea hippies, chilling out and saying things like ‘peace’ and ‘love’ and starting alpaca farms. Okay, so they might not go that far, but they let their groovy ideology awesome up their diet. In fact, they’re the only marine mammal that is classed as an herbivore. Even though they’re called a cow, they’re not related. But like cows, all that grass-eating has a few side effects. Despite sea cows having pretty hefty skeletons and more than a couple of extra pounds, the amount of gas that they produce means that they’re super buoyant. Ew.
There are four kinds of sea cow: the Amazonian manatee, the West Indian manatee, the West African manatee and the dugong. The manatees like to hang out in the Atlantic and in certain rivers, while dugongs are found chilling in the Indian and Pacific Oceans because they just couldn’t make up their minds. Manatees and dugongs look pretty different if you know what you’re looking for. Dugongs have fluked tails, similar to whales, and a manatee’s tail is rounded like a paddle. Also, manatees look like St. Bernards that got lost under the sea and grew barnacles, whereas dugongs look like really cheery Moomins.
The actual proper name for sea cows is Sirenians. Yep, like sirens. They got their name because lonely sailors thought that they were mermaids (at least that’s what they said at the time). However, their closest relative is actually the elephant… not Ariel!
You’d be unlikely to miss a sea cow if you saw one, by the way. That’s because they’re huge. Dugongs grow to an impressive eight to ten feet, and manatees show off a teensy bit by growing up to 13 feet. Manatees and dugongs are also blessed with dashing moustaches, (which help them to woo a sailor or two) and scientists have discovered that each of these whiskers is connected to a small cluster of cells in the sea cow’s brain, whose only job is to check up on the whisker’s feels, and possibly whether it needs any ice-cream and a Ryan Gosling movie.
Like some of their ancient predecessors, sea cows today are also facing extinction due to hunting, getting caught in nets meant for other animals, bumping into boats and the whole global warming thang. Governments are doing their bit to help by protecting the sea cows by law in many countries, but life happens and sea cow populations are suffering. It doesn’t help that sea cows don’t seem that into breeding, popping out a calf once every two to seven years. But even though sea cows don’t go in much for the baby making malarkey, they do like to do a bit of cavorting and will join up in large groups for parties that involve nuzzling, kissing and bumping against one another. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.
When sea cows finally get their breeding on, they’re awesome mothers. Well, the females are. The males are a bit rubbish at breastfeeding, but that’s what you get for having man bits. The mother will provide all of the care for the calf, giving it milk and awesome company for up to two years. Sea cow mothers and their babies are very close. Mothers have been observed kissing and nuzzling their calves, moving between the calf and any dangerous happenings, like sharks and Chuck Norris, and one mother was even seen balancing her baby on her back and lifting him to the surface so that he could breathe. Everybody say it: “Awww!”
Apart from when humans get a bit hungry, sea cows are a pretty sturdy bunch. Because of their chillaxed lifestyle, manatees and dugongs are rarely stressed, which means none of the stress-related diseases that people collect like Halloween candy. Sea cows also have super slow metabolisms, which means that it takes a while for their body to digest all the grassy nibbles that they’re chomping on. Having a slow metabolism might make you a tad curvy, but it’s also linked to longevity, meaning that their big, beautiful behinds get to wobble around the ocean a lot longer than, say, a shrew. Even if the shrew was wearing an oxygen tank and scuba gear, it would keel over first. Sorry shrew.
And here’s a final, fun fact for you: The only mammals with six neck vertebrae instead of seven are the manatee and the two-toed sloth, which pretty much defines that attribute as a massive, neon sign screaming ‘please don’t ask me to do anything exertive, I’m going for a nap’. So if you ever see a manatee and somehow manage to count its vertebrae without it screaming ‘harassment’ and calling the cops, remember, if it adds up to more than six, it’s not a sea cow, it’s a mermaid. They’re easily confused.