Perioral Bristle Use in Manatees for Feeding and Tactile Exploration
In 1493, Christopher Columbus looked down into the water and saw what he believed to be “ugly mermaids.” Today, we identify these slow-moving and gentle creatures as manatees or “sea cows.” Manatees are marine mammals and thus, breathe air through their lungs, possess hair, give birth to live young, and produce milk for their young (Ripple, 1999). They are large creatures, with the average adult size being around 9.8 feet long and weighing anywhere from 800–1,200 pounds (Save the Manatee Club, 2003). While they appear to be most closely related to other marine mammals, their closest relative is actually the elephant.
Manatees spend the majority of their time dwelling in shallow waters while foraging for aquatic vegetation, as they are herbivorous. Unfortunately, because of their slow movement and reaction time, manatees are often hit and injured by fast-moving boats, usually resulting in their death. Manatees have very few natural predators, making humans their number one predator. Stellarís sea cow, a gigantic version of todayís manatees, was hunted to extinction in the eighteenth century, only thirty years after its original discovery. Today, hunting rarely occurs and is only practiced in indigenous lands, but human activity is still lowering their populations. Coastal development, damn construction, shoreline netting, and increased boating have all contributed to the decline in manatee numbers. (Ripple, 1999). These activities result in habitat destruction, and moreover, feeding areas are also destroyed.
Consequently, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978 protect manatees in the United States under federal law. Essentially, it is illegal to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any manatee. Manatee conservation itself is a hot topic right now, as boaters and conservationists constantly disagree on the plight of the manatee. Currently, manatees are facing the problem of possibly being downlisted from "endangered" to merely "threatened." While protecting this species is very important, this website will focus on how manatees deal with the problems of tactility and feeding in an aquatic environment. More specifically, I will discuss recent research on how manatees are able to use specialized facial hairs to maximize their success while living the lifestyles that they do in such environments, which tend to restrict their energetic intake.
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