Florida Citizens for Science

August 29, 2006

Mind of the Manatee

by @ 5:24 pm. Filed under Learning Something New, Science in Action

 

Research on the manatee shows that it’s no dummy. I especially loved the part about not liking fish and so being hard to motivate. Does that make them smarter than dolphins since they can’t be bribed so easily?

The manatee, sluggish, squinty-eyed and bewhiskered, is more likely to have its rotund bulk compared to “a sweet potato,” its homely, almost fetal looks deemed “prehistoric” — terms applied by startled New Yorkers this month to a Florida manatee that made an unexpected appearance in the Hudson River.

Cleverness is unhesitatingly ascribed to the dolphin. But the manatee is not seen leaping through hoops or performing somersaults on command, and even scientists have suspected it may not be the smartest mammal in the sea. Writing in 1902, a British anatomist, Grafton Elliot Smith, groused that manatee brains — tiny in proportion to the animals’ bodies and smooth as a baby’s cheek — resembled “the brains of idiots.”

Far from being slow learners, manatees, it turns out, are as adept at experimental tasks as dolphins, though they are slower-moving and, having no taste for fish, more difficult to motivate. They have a highly developed sense of touch, mediated by thick hairs called vibrissae that adorn not just the face, as in other mammals, but the entire body, according to the researchers’ recent work.

And where earlier scientists saw in the manatee’s brain the evidence of deficient intelligence, Dr. Reep sees evolution’s shaping of an animal perfectly adapted to its environment.

But he also suspects that rather than the manatee’s brain being unusually small for its body, the situation may be the other way around: that its body, for sound evolutionary reasons, has grown unusually large in proportion to its brain.

For now, the question of how intertwined the sensory abilities of manatees might be remains unanswered. Yet even what is known reveals a degree of complexity that argues against labeling them as sweet but dumb — peaceable simpletons.

Dr. Domning of Howard could not agree more.

“They’re too smart to jump through hoops the way those dumb dolphins do,” he said.

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