Mote scientists conduct sensitivity study on manatees - WFLA News Channel 8

Mote scientists conduct sensitivity study on manatees

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Manatees may be slow-moving creatures underwater, but don't let their lack of speed fool you. They know what's going on around them.

Scientists at Mote Marine lab have done groundbreaking research to discover how these creatures feel their way underwater.

Kat Nicolaisen, a Mote Marine researcher said, "Manatees are extremely tactile animals.  It's really bizarre and different from any other animal in the animal kingdom."

Manatees have poor eyesight, and yet they can maneuver through murky water.  Mote scientists have now discovered these mammals are incredibly sensitive, and can detect microscopic water movements.

Manatees have 5,000 hairs across their body called 'vibrissae.' Scientist say to think of these as 5,000 little fingers.  And with these hairs they can create a 3D map of their underwater environment.

Scientists have been putting them to the test to see how sensitive these hairs are.

The Mote researchers isolated some hairs on the manatee's skin, and then used a computer to vibrate a ball, causing tiny underwater ripples.

If the manatee felt movement, it would tap a yellow paddle.

Through this, they learned manatees can detect water ripples below one nanometer, that's thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair.

"It's incredible, the smallest amount of particle movement that they can detect in the water!" said Nicolaisen.

Mote's Manager of Animal Care Dr Joseph Gaspard said, "This is really putting a better picture of what these animals are capable of."

The most sensitive hairs are on the manatee's face, and they can also distinguish between two different types of objects.

Along with better understanding these creatures, these scientists hope to be able to help manatees counter against their biggest threat- boat propellers.

Nicolaisen said, "We can then maybe figure out a way to maybe let boaters know that manatees are in the water, give them time, give them space and allow for them to dive out of the way."

By learning about the ways mammals maneuver themselves, scientists can find better ways to protect them from danger.

Manatees also use their senses to detect their changing environment. That's anything from a dip in temperatures to the change of tides.

Scientists want to use this information to learn how manatees detect and avoid risks.

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