Featured Image Credit: Carol Grant
By Shelby Hoover
You have probably noticed the long, iconic facial whiskers on a manatee…
But, did you know, manatees also have tiny hairs distributed sparsely all over their body. These tiny hairs are tactile hairs known as vibrissae.
Despite the size and quantity of the body hairs, a new study involving Mote Marine Laboratory’s highly trained, resident manatees indicates that they are very important. Mote Marine Laboratory scientists are finding that the body whiskers are almost as sensitive as the facial whiskers. The study suggests that the body whiskers could be equally important in helping manatees analyze the surroundings underwater and detect vibrations in the water.
Manatees are not known to have stellar eyesight, especially at night. So, the vibrissae provide manatees with a sixth sense and allow them to move around in dimly light environments. While this is not the first study on manatee body whiskers, this is the first study to significantly investigate the effects the body whiskers have on a manatees perception of its environment.
New College professor of Psychology Gordon Bauer, who began working at Mote in 1998, states that “We wanted to study the senses of manatees…What is the world that they perceive?”
To do this, Mote researchers used a spherical shaker and placed it in the water. The shaker was used to test whether the manatees could sense the different vibration levels in the water. Scientists would turn on a light to alert the manatees that the test was to begin and have the manatees press a paddle if they sensed a vibration in the water.
The results showed that the manatees body hairs are incredibly sensitive and could sense vibrations as low as one millionth of a meter. Kat Boerner, a senior aquarium biologist at Mote Marine Laboratory, has been working with the aquarium’s manatees, Hugh and Buffett, on the experiment. Boerner said she was most surprised at the level at which the hairs can detect movement.
Ultimately, this high level of tactile sensitivity in the vibrissae gives insight as to how manatees may navigate and survive in coastal waters today!