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For manatees, it's brains over beauty


http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/08/30/healthscience/snmanatee.php

By Erica Goode The New York Times

August 30, 2006

It is a good thing the manatee has thick skin. To the dolphins, the whales and the sea otters go the admiring oohs and ahs, the cries of, "How sleek!" "How beautiful!" The manatee, sluggish, squinty-eyed and bewhiskered, is more likely to have its rotund bulk compared to "a sweet potato" and its homely, almost fetal looks deemed "prehistoric."

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.

Yet the conception of the simple sea cow is being turned on its head by the recent work of Roger Reep, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and a small group of other manatee researchers, including Gordon Bauer, a professor of psychology at New College of Florida, and David Mann, a biologist at the University of South Florida.

In studies over the past decade, they have shown that the endangered Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is as unusual in its physiology, sensory capabilities and brain organization as in its external appearance. Far from being slow learners, manatees 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, Reep sees evolution's shaping of an animal perfectly adapted to its environment.

Reep is a co-author, with Robert Bonde, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, of a recently published book, "The Florida Manatee: Biology and Conservation" (University Press of Florida). He argues that the small size of the manatee brain may have little or nothing to do with its intelligence.

Brain size has been linked by some biologists with the elaborateness of the survival strategies an animal must develop to find food and avoid predators. Manatees have the lowest brain-to- body ratio of any mammal. But they are aquatic herbivores, subsisting on sea grass and other vegetation. With the exception of powerboats piloted by speed-happy Floridians, which kill about 80 manatees a year and maim dozens more, they have no predators.

"Manatees don't eat anybody, and they're not eaten by anybody," Reep said.

Reep suspects that rather than the manatee's brain being unusually small for its body, the situation is the other way around: that its body, for sound evolutionary reasons, has grown unusually large in proportion to its brain.

A large body makes it easier to keep warm in the water - essential for a mammal like the manatee, with a glacially slow metabolism. It also provides room for the large digestive system necessary to process giant quantities of low-protein, low-calorie food. A manatee must consume 10 percent of its body weight - from 800 to 1,200 pounds, or about 360 to 545 kilograms - a day.

The smooth surface of the manatee's brain - it generally has only one main vertical fissure and no surface ridges to speak of - is more puzzling, Reep said. The brains of virtually every mammal bigger than a small rodent show some degree of folding. And scientists have generally taken the human cortex, a study in ridges and crevasses, as a model of higher-order mental process.

But Reep added that scientists still know almost nothing about what drives the development of brain formation. Evolutionary lineage appears to have an influence. The brains of primates tend to have different patterns of convolution than those of carnivores, for example. And mechanical factors like brain size and the denseness of neural tissue in the cortex may play a role.

In any case, Reep said, brain convolution "doesn't seem to be correlated with the capacity to do things."

Intelligence - in animals or in humans - is hard to define, much less compare between species, Reep said. Is the intelligence of a gifted concert pianist the same as that of a math whiz? Is a lion's cunning the same as the cleverness of a Norwegian rat? The manatee is good at what it needs to be good at.

It is a good thing the manatee has thick skin. To the dolphins, the whales and the sea otters go the admiring oohs and ahs, the cries of, "How sleek!" "How beautiful!" The manatee, sluggish, squinty-eyed and bewhiskered, is more likely to have its rotund bulk compared to "a sweet potato" and its homely, almost fetal looks deemed "prehistoric."

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.

Yet the conception of the simple sea cow is being turned on its head by the recent work of Roger Reep, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and a small group of other manatee researchers, including Gordon Bauer, a professor of psychology at New College of Florida, and David Mann, a biologist at the University of South Florida.

In studies over the past decade, they have shown that the endangered Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is as unusual in its physiology, sensory capabilities and brain organization as in its external appearance. Far from being slow learners, manatees 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, Reep sees evolution's shaping of an animal perfectly adapted to its environment.

Reep is a co-author, with Robert Bonde, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, of a recently published book, "The Florida Manatee: Biology and Conservation" (University Press of Florida). He argues that the small size of the manatee brain may have little or nothing to do with its intelligence.

Brain size has been linked by some biologists with the elaborateness of the survival strategies an animal must develop to find food and avoid predators. Manatees have the lowest brain-to- body ratio of any mammal. But they are aquatic herbivores, subsisting on sea grass and other vegetation. With the exception of powerboats piloted by speed-happy Floridians, which kill about 80 manatees a year and maim dozens more, they have no predators.

"Manatees don't eat anybody, and they're not eaten by anybody," Reep said.

Reep suspects that rather than the manatee's brain being unusually small for its body, the situation is the other way around: that its body, for sound evolutionary reasons, has grown unusually large in proportion to its brain.

A large body makes it easier to keep warm in the water - essential for a mammal like the manatee, with a glacially slow metabolism. It also provides room for the large digestive system necessary to process giant quantities of low-protein, low-calorie food. A manatee must consume 10 percent of its body weight - from 800 to 1,200 pounds, or about 360 to 545 kilograms - a day.

The smooth surface of the manatee's brain - it generally has only one main vertical fissure and no surface ridges to speak of - is more puzzling, Reep said. The brains of virtually every mammal bigger than a small rodent show some degree of folding. And scientists have generally taken the human cortex, a study in ridges and crevasses, as a model of higher-order mental process.

But Reep added that scientists still know almost nothing about what drives the development of brain formation. Evolutionary lineage appears to have an influence. The brains of primates tend to have different patterns of convolution than those of carnivores, for example. And mechanical factors like brain size and the denseness of neural tissue in the cortex may play a role.

In any case, Reep said, brain convolution "doesn't seem to be correlated with the capacity to do things."

Intelligence - in animals or in humans - is hard to define, much less compare between species, Reep said. Is the intelligence of a gifted concert pianist the same as that of a math whiz? Is a lion's cunning the same as the cleverness of a Norwegian rat? The manatee is good at what it needs to be good at.

It is a good thing the manatee has thick skin. To the dolphins, the whales and the sea otters go the admiring oohs and ahs, the cries of, "How sleek!" "How beautiful!" The manatee, sluggish, squinty-eyed and bewhiskered, is more likely to have its rotund bulk compared to "a sweet potato" and its homely, almost fetal looks deemed "prehistoric."

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.

Yet the conception of the simple sea cow is being turned on its head by the recent work of Roger Reep, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and a small group of other manatee researchers, including Gordon Bauer, a professor of psychology at New College of Florida, and David Mann, a biologist at the University of South Florida.

In studies over the past decade, they have shown that the endangered Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is as unusual in its physiology, sensory capabilities and brain organization as in its external appearance. Far from being slow learners, manatees 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, Reep sees evolution's shaping of an animal perfectly adapted to its environment.

Reep is a co-author, with Robert Bonde, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, of a recently published book, "The Florida Manatee: Biology and Conservation" (University Press of Florida). He argues that the small size of the manatee brain may have little or nothing to do with its intelligence.

Brain size has been linked by some biologists with the elaborateness of the survival strategies an animal must develop to find food and avoid predators. Manatees have the lowest brain-to- body ratio of any mammal. But they are aquatic herbivores, subsisting on sea grass and other vegetation. With the exception of powerboats piloted by speed-happy Floridians, which kill about 80 manatees a year and maim dozens more, they have no predators.

"Manatees don't eat anybody, and they're not eaten by anybody," Reep said.

Reep suspects that rather than the manatee's brain being unusually small for its body, the situation is the other way around: that its body, for sound evolutionary reasons, has grown unusually large in proportion to its brain.

A large body makes it easier to keep warm in the water - essential for a mammal like the manatee, with a glacially slow metabolism. It also provides room for the large digestive system necessary to process giant quantities of low-protein, low-calorie food. A manatee must consume 10 percent of its body weight - from 800 to 1,200 pounds, or about 360 to 545 kilograms - a day.

The smooth surface of the manatee's brain - it generally has only one main vertical fissure and no surface ridges to speak of - is more puzzling, Reep said. The brains of virtually every mammal bigger than a small rodent show some degree of folding. And scientists have generally taken the human cortex, a study in ridges and crevasses, as a model of higher-order mental process.

But Reep added that scientists still know almost nothing about what drives the development of brain formation. Evolutionary lineage appears to have an influence. The brains of primates tend to have different patterns of convolution than those of carnivores, for example. And mechanical factors like brain size and the denseness of neural tissue in the cortex may play a role.

In any case, Reep said, brain convolution "doesn't seem to be correlated with the capacity to do things."

Intelligence - in animals or in humans - is hard to define, much less compare between species, Reep said. Is the intelligence of a gifted concert pianist the same as that of a math whiz? Is a lion's cunning the same as the cleverness of a Norwegian rat? The manatee is good at what it needs to be good at.

It is a good thing the manatee has thick skin. To the dolphins, the whales and the sea otters go the admiring oohs and ahs, the cries of, "How sleek!" "How beautiful!" The manatee, sluggish, squinty-eyed and bewhiskered, is more likely to have its rotund bulk compared to "a sweet potato" and its homely, almost fetal looks deemed "prehistoric."

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.

Yet the conception of the simple sea cow is being turned on its head by the recent work of Roger Reep, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and a small group of other manatee researchers, including Gordon Bauer, a professor of psychology at New College of Florida, and David Mann, a biologist at the University of South Florida.

In studies over the past decade, they have shown that the endangered Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is as unusual in its physiology, sensory capabilities and brain organization as in its external appearance. Far from being slow learners, manatees 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, Reep sees evolution's shaping of an animal perfectly adapted to its environment.

Reep is a co-author, with Robert Bonde, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, of a recently published book, "The Florida Manatee: Biology and Conservation" (University Press of Florida). He argues that the small size of the manatee brain may have little or nothing to do with its intelligence.

Brain size has been linked by some biologists with the elaborateness of the survival strategies an animal must develop to find food and avoid predators. Manatees have the lowest brain-to- body ratio of any mammal. But they are aquatic herbivores, subsisting on sea grass and other vegetation. With the exception of powerboats piloted by speed-happy Floridians, which kill about 80 manatees a year and maim dozens more, they have no predators.

"Manatees don't eat anybody, and they're not eaten by anybody," Reep said.

Reep suspects that rather than the manatee's brain being unusually small for its body, the situation is the other way around: that its body, for sound evolutionary reasons, has grown unusually large in proportion to its brain.

A large body makes it easier to keep warm in the water - essential for a mammal like the manatee, with a glacially slow metabolism. It also provides room for the large digestive system necessary to process giant quantities of low-protein, low-calorie food. A manatee must consume 10 percent of its body weight - from 800 to 1,200 pounds, or about 360 to 545 kilograms - a day.

The smooth surface of the manatee's brain - it generally has only one main vertical fissure and no surface ridges to speak of - is more puzzling, Reep said. The brains of virtually every mammal bigger than a small rodent show some degree of folding. And scientists have generally taken the human cortex, a study in ridges and crevasses, as a model of higher-order mental process.

But Reep added that scientists still know almost nothing about what drives the development of brain formation. Evolutionary lineage appears to have an influence. The brains of primates tend to have different patterns of convolution than those of carnivores, for example. And mechanical factors like brain size and the denseness of neural tissue in the cortex may play a role.

In any case, Reep said, brain convolution "doesn't seem to be correlated with the capacity to do things."

Intelligence - in animals or in humans - is hard to define, much less compare between species, Reep said. Is the intelligence of a gifted concert pianist the same as that of a math whiz? Is a lion's cunning the same as the cleverness of a Norwegian rat? The manatee is good at what it needs to be good at.


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http://www.animalsinthewild.org

"In a world older and more complete than ours, animals move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."
Henry Beston

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