Columbus Mistakes Manatees for Mermaids
On January 9, 1493, explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing near the Dominican Republic, saw three “mermaids” – actually manatees – and described them as “not half as beautiful as they are painted”. Six months earlier, Columbus (1451-1506) left Spain across the Atlantic Ocean with the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, hoping to find a western trade route to Asia. Instead, his journey, the first of four he would undertake, took him to the Americas, or “New World.”
Mermaids, half-female, half-fish mythical creatures, have existed in maritime cultures at least since the time of the ancient Greeks. Typically described as having the head and torso of a woman, a fishtail instead of legs, and holding a mirror and comb, mermaids live in the ocean and, according to some legends, can take on human form and marry. mortal men. Mermaids are closely related to mermaids, another folk figure, half woman, half bird, who live on islands and sing seductive songs to lure sailors to death.
Sightings of mermaids by sailors, when not invented, were most likely manatees, dugongs, or Steller’s sea cows (which went extinct in the 1760s due to overhunting). Manatees are sluggish aquatic mammals with human eyes, bulbous faces, and paddle-shaped tails. It is likely that manatees evolved from an ancestor they shared with the elephant. The three species of manatees (West Indian, West African and Amazonian) and one species of dugong belong to the order Sirenia. As adults, they are typically 10 to 12 feet long and weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds. They eat plants, have a slow metabolism, and can only survive in hot water.
Manatees live an average of 50 to 60 years in the wild and have no natural predators. However, they are an endangered species. In the United States, the majority of manatees are found in Florida, where dozens of them die or are injured each year as a result of collisions with boats.
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