Do Manatees Have Long-Term Memory

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There used to be consensus that manatees are dull-witted animals. Of course, that belief relied on observation of the animals in the wild and on brain studies. But the conclusions were made without a close opportunity to interact with a manatee. Since manatees are large, lumbering creatures, observing their behavior in the wild easily resulted in the conclusion that they are not that intelligent. Equally, because the manatee brain is softball-size and smooth, lacking the nooks and crannies that tend to provide more brain activity, brain studies on manatees often led to the conclusion that there was not much going on in their brains.

Perceptions Disapproved

But that was before Snooty appeared in the scene and helped unravel the hidden gem that is a manatee brain. Snooty was a male Florida manatee that lived fro July 21, 1948 to July 23, 2017. The male manatee resided at the South Florida Museum’s Parker Manatee Aquarium in Bradenton, Florida. Snooty’s birth was one of the first recorded captive manatee births and later on, while dying at the age of 69, he was the oldest manatee in captivity—and possibly the oldest manatee in the world. Snooty was a manatee with regular human interaction, allowing for a comprehensive study of various aspects of the animals, including their memory.

During his years in captivity, it was discovered that snooty could remember the voices of former keepers and recall the training behaviors he had learned when just one year old. When used in laboratory experiments at the Mote Marine Laboratory, it was shown that snooty was capable of performing experimental tasks, just like dolphins, disapproving the previously held notion that manatees were unintelligent.

Likewise, auditory and visual tests were run on Snooty with the goal of finding out why a large number of manatees were being hit by boat propellers when in most of the circumstances they were clearly able to get out of the way. The tests proved that manatees could hear and see well. In fact, through lateralization testing on Snooty to assess the manatee tendency to move left or right, it was shown that manatees have an inclination to go left when stimulated, making them vulnerable to boat collisions when boaters are unaware of this. With this information, boaters can now avoid manatees knowing that the animals would definitely turn left at the sight on an oncoming watercraft.

So do manatees have long-term memory?

Well, yes. While manatees are gentle and docile grazers that are curious and friendly to both humans and other animals, they are also smart and intelligent. They can learn new things and activities and have remarkable long-term memory. In fact, manatees are memory-driven. For example, they remember to return to their sanctuaries and to migrate to the warm water springs and power plant effluents to survive the winter. Manatees show up in the same places year after year, with those reliant on power plant effluents returning to these areas, unaware of other warm water spots nearby—a clear show of their long-term memory.

Through visual, acoustic and auditory studies, it has also been demonstrated that manatees have advanced long-term memory. Though they do not have great eyesight, manatees see in color and are able to recognize people and boats in the water. They also hear sound well and are able to hear boat motors and recognize the voices of individual people. Since they can recognize sounds and voices and can follow instructions delivered to them in a friendly, simple and consistent manner, the animals can be trained and can use whatever they have been taught to improve the quality of their lives. Similarly, manatees have advanced learning capability and typically require a period of two weeks to six months to be conditioned to behave in a given way.

When does learning begin in manatees?

Like other juveniles, baby manatees look up to adult manatees to know what to do, where to go, and what to eat. In fact, soon after birth, calves learn from their mothers and have to use their memory to retain the information they need to survive in their environment. The adult manatees tolerate, protect and care for the young ones, helping them adjust to their environment and learn new things. As they grow, the young manatees learn to socialize easily with other manatees, particularly the art of bonding and co-existing with others.
Once they have learned something, manatees retain it in their long-term memory and apply it in future to improve their lives. For instance, manatees learn to detect cold weather and migrate to warmer waters when they are young. They also get to know the passageways or travel corridors used to move back and forth between their summer and winter habitats. In fact, if their mothers have preferred habitats, young manatees learn to travel to those areas and tend to prefer and return to those habitats every wintering season.

Is there a danger in manatee interactions with humans?

Although manatee interactions with humans in their natural habitat is a glorious experience, being accustomed to people may alter the animal’s behavior in the wild, possibly causing them to lose their fear of boats and humans. In turn, this would make them more vulnerable to harm. And so interactions with manatees should always be limited to passive observation with actions such as feeding, touching or giving them water prohibited.

At Captain Mike’s, we offer manatee tours based on observation and a respectful and caring attitude toward the animals and their habitat. We’ll provide you with snorkeling gear in order to keep your time in the water as less disruptive to the animals as possible. We also educate you on manatees and manatee habitats and guide you in the water with a knowledgeable, experienced and certified captain. For more information on manatees and manatee tours, visit the Captain Mike’s Swimming with the Manatees website.

Swimming with the Manatees boasts the best water adventure in Crystal River, Florida with lots of things to do for you and your family. For more information, contact us online, or call us at (352) 571-1888.

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