Soft Manatee, Warm Manatee? Understanding How Manatees Behave

Featured Image Caption: Antillean manatees (Trichechus manatus manatus) are a subspecies of American manatees. Living in the Caribbean in tropical and subtropical zones, their populations have been in constant decline for decades, leading them to be considered endangered by the IUCN’s Red List. (Image Source: “manatee!” by Malingering, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Reference:  Charles, A., Henaut, Y., Saint Jalme, M., Mulot, B., Lecu, A., & Delfour, F. (2022). Studying Antillean manatees’ (Trichechus manatus manatus) temperament in zoological parks: exploration of boldness, sociality and reactivity to humans. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 246, 105512.

Have you ever heard the “Soft Kitty” song featured on The Big Bang Theory? It starts with “Soft kitty, warm kitty, little ball of fur…” and so it goes. Kittens are usually associated with being soft and warm, but some may be more feisty than others. Well, there is an unfounded perception that manatees are just like that: big, fluffy, and harmless. Commonly perceived as gentle giants, there is little known about Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus) behavior, both in the wild and in captivity.

Image Caption: Antillean manatees are one of the most understudied species that inhabit Caribbean waters. Personally, I have worked with the Dominican populations of Antillean manatees, whose numbers are even lower than was originally thought. Perhaps learning more about their behavior could help us better understand where to focus conservation efforts. (Image Source: “Manatee” by Karen Starkey, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0).

Due to this gap in knowledge, a group of scientists set out to identify if Antillean manatees in captivity had diverse temperaments – such as shyness or boldness. Researchers assessed individual manatees’ temperaments by observing their reaction to new stimuli and asking zookeepers how they perceived individuals.

But Wait, What is an Animal’s Temperament?

An animal’s temperament is how an individual repeatedly behaves, which typically varies between individuals. That is to say, if an animal consistently behaves a particular way towards others, then that is considered to be his temperament. This has been measured in various species, but as it had never been measured in manatees before, Dr. Aviva Charles and their collaborators had to establish valid methodology for assessing behavior. In this way, observing temperaments can be more accessible and replicable in other manatees under human care.

You might be wondering why an animal’s temperament is important. An individual’s boldness-shyness characteristic is an important trait to be identified, as it can be related to how well an animal adapts to their changing environment. Studies have shown that individuals that tend towards the shy spectrum are slower to adapt to varying conditions in nature.

How To Study a Manatee’s Behavior

Dr. Aviva Charles and their collaborators studied 16 Antillean manatees kept in two French zoological parks: 12 individuals at ZooParc de Beauval in Saint Aignan, France, and 4 individuals at the Paris Zoological Parc in Paris, France. These animals varied in age, sex, and time in captivity in their current facility. There were 10 male individuals and 6 female individuals, their ages ranging from 1 to 38 years, and their time in captivity in their current facility ranging from 6 months to 23 years and 6 months.

They then observed a manatee’s reaction to them being approached, touched, and manipulated by keepers and other manatees and described their reactions using descriptors such as – intelligent, aggressive, calm, active, shy, friendly, fearful, solitary, explorative, cooperant, tactile, or vigilant – based on their reactions to new and old stimuli and people.

And What Did This Tell Us About Antillean Manatees?

Antillean manatees in captivity were found to have different temperaments, both between individuals and between zoological parks. They found that individuals that were characterized as bolder were more likely to approach and interact for longer periods of time with new stimuli, as well as to be friendly towards being touched and manipulated as compared to shier individuals.

Image Caption: Manatees in captivity see and interact with people more frequently than wild manatees. This could alter their behavior towards keepers, but not so much towards new stimuli. (Image Source: “Manatees” (left) and “Manatees” (right) by Jeremy Polanski, licensed under CC BY 2.0).

Additionally, they found that boldness could be associated with proximity to other manatees and to being hand-fed. Interestingly, they also note that what was observed by their behavioral experiment agrees with the empirical knowledge attributed to their zookeepers. In other words, zookeepers were right about which of the individuals under their care were bolder or shier.

So, while many manatees are the soft and warm animals we thought them to be, we also find that they have diverse temperaments that make each manatee unique.

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Andrea Valcarcel

Having graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Biology from Thompson Rivers University (BC, Canada), I am currently working as the head of an Oceanic Lab in the Dominican Republic while also being an MSc candidate in Ecology and Environmental Sciences. My research so far has been mostly focused on corals and marine mammals and the effects climate change may have in their overall behavior and survival. When not monitoring marine ecosystems, you can find me volunteering with my therapy dog and reading romance and fantasy novels. Twitter: @andreavalcar

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