The Florida manatee lives in freshwater, brackish, and marine habitats, including coastal tidal rivers and streams, mangrove swamps, salt marshes, and freshwater springs. Submerged, emergent, and floating vegetation are their preferred foods. During the winter, cold temperatures keep the population concentrated in peninsular Florida and many manatees rely on the warm water from natural springs and power plant outfalls. During the summer they expand their range and on rare occasions are seen as far north as Rhode Island on the Atlantic coast and possibly as far west as Texas on the Gulf coast (USFWS 2001, 2007).
The following summary of habitat use by the Florida manatee is based on the review in the West Indian Manatee 5-Year Review (USFWS 2007 and references therein): Shallow grass beds, with ready access to deep channels, are generally preferred feeding areas in coastal and riverine habitats. In coastal Georgia and northeastern Florida, manatees feed in salt marshes on smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) by timing feeding periods with high tide. Manatees use springs and freshwater runoff sites for drinking water; secluded canals, creeks, embayments, and lagoons for resting, cavorting, mating, calving and nurturing their young; and open waterways and channels as travel corridors. Manatees occupy different habitats during various times of the year, with a focus on warm-water sites during winter. Manatees have adapted to changing ecosystems in Florida. Industrial warm-water discharges and deep-dredged areas are used as wintering sites, stormwater/freshwater discharges provide manatees with drinking water, and the imported exotic plant, Hydrilla sp. (which has replaced native aquatic species in some areas), has become an important food source at wintering sites.
Historically, manatees relied on the warm, temperate waters of south Florida and on natural warm-water springs scattered throughout Florida as buffers against the lethal effects of cold winter temperatures. In part, as a result of human disturbance at natural sites, they have expanded their winter range to include industrial sites and associated warm-water discharges as refuges from the cold. Although manatees overwinter at major springs throughout peninsular Florida, nearly two-thirds of the population winters at industrial warmwater sites, which are now made up almost entirely of power plants.
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