Whatever the name - Sea Cow, Big Beaver, Mermaid or "Furnished with Hands"- the main place the hulking manatee is found in the United States is Florida. The State Marine Mammal is an 8'-14' gray, waterplant-eating, gentle giant that can weigh more than a ton. Manatee may have developed from the Hatian word "manati," which means "big beaver." Although appropriate in its description of this docile, slow-moving mammal, the more likely derivation of the name comes from the Latin "manatus" - meaning "furnished with hands." The manatee's flippers can appear almost hand-like from a distance. That observation plus the presence of a tail perhaps fostered the legend that manatees were "mermaids." Coincidentally, the order to which the manatee belongs is called Sirenia - meaning siren or mermaid. The manatee is on the endangered species list, but chances for its survival are good if man's activities can be controlled. Of all the known causes of manatee mortality, man is responsible for about half of the deaths. The single greatest-known cause of mortality is boats and barges. To a manatee, a speeding boat is more hazardous than disease, weather, poachers, or alligators, for its propeller blades can cut a manatee's thick hide to ribbons. Some relief has been forthcoming, however, since the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978 and subsequent regulations from the Governor and Cabinet have limited the speed of boats in the waters populated by the species during winter months when upwards of 1,500 manatees must inhabit warm bays and rivers to avoid pneumonia and death.
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