A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Are manatees white meat or dark meat?

July 5, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

Here at work, we got into a heated discussion regarding that most beautiful of creatures, the Florida manatee. Most mammals produce a meat that is considered red, but there are the rare mammals that are known as White Meat. Where does the manatee fit into this scheme? I am not considering hunting them, I just would like to clear this issue up.

You must be a government employee. So am I.

Beauty is really in the eye of the beholder in this case. This is what I'd call a homely slug. Something like a potato with flippers and a tail. Slow-moving and not too smart. Don't tell that to the marine biologists, Florida park rangers, and zookeepers I called who were mostly horrified by the implications of this question. Two were disgusted, one made fun of me, and three answered the question seriously, if reluctantly. More on that later.

The Florida manatee, Trichechus manatus latirostris, frequents coastal waters, streams and brackish estuaries and feeds on vegetation. Adults can grow up to 13 feet long and 3,000 pounds. There are estimated to be only 2,600 left in the U.S. Habitat destruction is a big problem, and power boats also are a threat. They hang out near the surface and have to come up for air about every five minutes. When counting manatees, scientists often identify them by the scars most of them have from contact with boat propellers and hulls.

Now let's talk about what makes meat light/dark, red/white. White meat generally has a lower myoglobin level, which means that there is less oxygen being provided to the muscle tissues. According to Dr. John Scanga, Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University, the amount of myoglobin is determined by what metabolic type the muscle is. There are three kinds of skeletal muscle fibers, commonly referred to as red (slow-oxidative), white (fast-glycolytic), and intermediate (fast-oxidative). Red fibers oxidize fat to create energy. White fibers have less myoglobin, and primarily generate energy from stored glucose. Intermediate fibers can do both. The composition of the fibers is mixed and varies largely within an individual animal and even within an individual muscle. This can be due to anatomical function, proximity to the blood supply, or muscle conditioning. (Cecil already knows this, by the way. See the end of http://www.straightdope.com/colum ns/981204.html.)

For example, marathon runners have conditioned their muscles to be very efficient and to utilize fat as energy. So you would expect them to have a greater proportion of red muscle fibers (that makes me Red Meat, by the way). Sprinters have conditioned their muscles to produce energy rapidly and for only a short period and would have a greater proportion of white fibers. Dr. Scanga said, "I have read the darkest meat found is from whales. This is because they have a lot of fat and need to be very energy and oxygen efficient."

At http://www.seaworld.org/manatee/ad apaqman.html I found: "In contrast to whales and dolphins, manatees aren't deep-diving marine mammals. Therefore, manatees' muscles don't contain the high concentrations of the oxygen-binding protein myoglobin that is typical of other marine mammals." Hah. Now we're getting somewhere.

When asked about manatee meat, Betsy Dearth, park ranger at Homosossa Spring State Wildlife park in charge of the manatees, says, "Manatees are related to elephants and hyrax, so I believe the meat would be a red meat. In my 15 years of working with manatees, I have never been asked that question."

(I also read that they may be related to aardvarks, by the way)

Beth Wright, associate research scientist at the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg, responded: "Manatee meat is a mixture of the two classic appearances. It is not lean but fatty. However it is not marbleized as beef gets when supplementally fed. Overall, manatee appears more like pork than beef or game."

After all that, for the late-breaking comprehensive answer we go to Bonde . . . Robert Bonde. He's a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Florida Caribbean Science Center in Gainesville, Florida. He writes:

Manatees are protected throughout their range in the world but are still illegally hunted and killed in remote areas. The literature states that manatee meat has up to seven different and distinct flavors depending on the location of the cut. Some have said that manatee meat tastes like pork, fish, beef, and chicken. Basically, manatee meat tastes like manatee (a very unique flavor and taste). Depending on the location in the body their meats range in color from light pink-brown to a very dark purple. Therefore, it is safe to say that they have both a light meat and dark meat, but in general it is all pink or red. I hope this helps. - Bob Bonde

I'm up for a luau. My only question is: what wine do I serve?

ANOTHER WORD FROM MR. BONDE

Bob Bonde wanted to see a copy of my article. I warned him he might not like it, as I described manatees as being ugly as sin. He wrote back: "Oh no! Don't do that! They are not ugly once you get to know them. Not only do their Moms think they are beautiful, but once you experience them here in Florida it's love at first sight. . . . If you do write that they are "ugly as sin" (and taste good too?), you'll have to research and write another article about them. I'll send you some materials!"

He also sent me some JPGs. Really ugly ones.

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