Because thyroid hormones play a critical role in the regulation of metabolism, the low metabolic rates reported for manatees suggest that thyroid hormone concentrations in these animals may also be reduced. However, thyroid hormone concentrations have yet to be examined in manatees. The effects of captivity, diet and water salinity on plasma total triiodothyronine (tT(3)), total thyroxine (tT(4)) and free thyroxine (fT(4)) concentrations were assessed in adult West Indian manatees (Trichechus manatus). Free-ranging manatees exhibited significantly greater tT(4) and fT(4) concentrations than captive adults, regardless of diet, indicating that some aspect of a captive existence results in reduced T(4) concentrations. To determine whether this reduction might be related to feeding, captive adults fed on a mixed vegetable diet were switched to a strictly sea grass diet, resulting in decreased food consumption and a decrease in body mass. However, tT(4) and fT(4) concentrations were significantly elevated over initial values for 19 days. This may indicate that during periods of reduced food consumption manatees activate thyroid-hormone-promoted lipolysis to meet water and energetic requirements. Alterations in water salinity for captive animals did not induce significant changes in thyroid hormone concentrations. In spite of lower metabolic rates, thyroid hormone concentrations in captive manatees were comparable with those for other terrestrial and marine mammals, suggesting that the low metabolic rate in manatees is not attributable to reduced circulating thyroid hormone concentrations.
The ability of West Indian manatees (Trichechus manatus) to move between fresh and salt water raises the question of whether manatees drink salt water. Water turnover rates were estimated in captive West Indian manatees using the deuterium oxide dilution technique. Rates were quantified in animals using four experimental treatments: (1) held in fresh water and fed lettuce (N=4), (2) held in salt water and fed lettuce (N=2), (3) acutely exposed to salt water and fed lettuce (N=4), and (4) chronically exposed to salt water with limited access to fresh water and fed sea grass (N=5). Animals held in fresh water had the highest turnover rates (145+/−12 ml kg-1 day-1) (mean +/− s.e.m.). Animals acutely exposed to salt water decreased their turnover rate significantly when moved into salt water (from 124+/−15 to 65+/−15 ml kg-1 day-1) and subsequently increased their turnover rate upon re-entry to fresh water (146+/−19 ml kg-1 day-1). Manatees chronically exposed to salt water had significantly lower turnover rates (21+/−3 ml kg-1 day-1) compared with animals held in salt water and fed lettuce (45+/−3 ml kg-1 day-1). Manatees chronically exposed to salt water and fed sea grass had very low turnover rates compared with manatees held in salt water and fed lettuce, which is consistent with a lack of mariposia. Manatees in fresh water drank large volumes of water, which may make them susceptible to hyponatremia if access to a source of Na+ is not provided.