Alligators are notorious predators that will seemingly grab any animal within their reach to make a tasty meal. Surely the large, fat-filled manatees with whom alligators share a habitat within coastal and estuarine waters are too good an opportunity to pass up for lunch.
But do alligators eat manatees?
Surprisingly, manatees are not on the menu for alligators. Due to a combination of how an alligator hunts and consumes its prey and the defense mechanisms of the manatee, the reptile does not include the large mammal within its list of viable prey.
Manatees are generally gentle giants, so you would think they would be an easy meal for alligators, right? Let’s dive into the motivation behind an alligator’s unwillingness to attack the peaceful manatee.
Why Don’t Alligators Attack Manatees?
When it comes to determining whether or not an animal is a suitable prey item, there are a few things that need to be considered, but the most important is if that prey is worth the energy invested to capture it.
Alligators typically don’t attack manatees because they are often much larger than the alligator themselves. Alligators consume their food whole and even a baby manatee may be too cumbersome to attempt to eat without chewing.
Even though an alligator can’t swallow a whole manatee, they could still use their powerful jaws and razor sharp teeth to rip off a chunk of the manatee, right? Wrong. A manatee’s hide is extremely thick and cannot even be penetrated by an alligator’s teeth, especially if it is flexed in defense.
Thanks to their puncture-proof skin even babies that are small enough are not worth eating because that tough hide is virtually indigestible for an alligator.
In addition to their size and strong skin, manatees can swim in short bursts up to 15 mph, almost matching the 20 mph speed of most alligators. Such an energy-consuming chase is considered wasteful for prey that is virtually inedible.
What about the alligator’s secret attack weapon: the death roll? Not even the dreaded death roll, which occurs when an alligator drags its victim to the bottom of a water body clamped firmly in the reptile’s jaws and rolls the unsuspecting animal around until it drowns, is a threat to manatees.
Similarly to a capybara, a manatee is simply too large for a gator’s jaws to lock on, much less drag under and roll around. Additionally, manatees can hold their breaths for twenty minutes or more, virtually negating the risk of drowning by this method.
All things considered, alligators don’t attack manatees because they would expend too much energy in the process and, even if they managed to kill the manatee, gain almost nothing from it since the mammals are not easily digested by the large reptiles.
Do Alligators Ever Attack Manatees?
Alligator attacks on manatees are extremely rare since these mammals do not provide a good food source for alligators. However, they can occur every once in a while.
In the event that an alligator has not found food for a long time and is presented with a manatee calf, the reptile may attempt to eat the baby manatee. However, the gator would be hard-pressed to get past the manatee’s mother, not to mention the tough hide that even the baby possesses.
Alligators have also been known to attack satellite tags that have been attached to manatees by scientific researchers hoping to study the movements of manatees. Since these tags are small enough for the gator to eat, they may bite the hardware to test if it is a viable food source.
Are Manatees a Threat to Alligators?
We’ve established that alligators are not a threat to manatees, but can the same be said if the tables are turned?
Manatees are not a threat to alligators and have several reasons for not instigating a fight against an alligator. Most notably, manatees are not aggressive.
Even when defending themselves or their young against the unlikely event of a gator attack, they simply rely on flexing their thick hide in order to protect themselves.
Manatees and alligators may have overlapping habitats, but they don’t compete for the same resources. Alligators are carnivores and manatees are herbivores, so manatees have no reason to fight alligators for food.
The most interaction you might see between an alligator and a manatee is a manatee nudging an alligator out of its swimming path much as it would do to a log. Even this bold action by a manatee is not enough to stir up a reaction from an alligator.
From the evidence in the video shown below, alligators and manatees can even be seen swimming peacefully side by side:
Do Alligators Benefit from Manatees?
Although alligators and manatees live in harmony in the same habitat, there is virtually no benefit of one species to the other as you might see in mutualistic symbiotic relationships.
If the manatees were not present, the alligators would be no better or worse off. Manatees may be helpful in clearing large branches in the water; however, alligators are just as strong if not stronger than the large sea-going mammals and could do the job just as well.
Manatees may also help stir up small fish taking refuge in the seagrasses when the sea cows forage for their vegetative food. This may help make an easy meal for any alligators who may be hanging around. Although alligators seem to be quite efficient at capturing their own food without much help!
The next time you visit coastal waters where the manatees hang out, don’t be alarmed at the possibility of a gator attacking one of these gentle giants. Manatees make a terrible meal for alligators because of their enormous size, tough hide, and ability to withstand an alligator attack.
Just because alligators won’t attack manatees doesn’t mean there won’t be any gators in the area though. It’s not uncommon to see the unlikely pair swimming together so keep your eyes peeled. Those alligators may not be bothered by the manatees, but they may still be on the look out for a more viable meal!