Manatee Manatee
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Manatee Adaptations: The Head

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In many ways, a Manatee looks at, listens to, tastes, smells, and chews the world through its head. Many features of a Manatee's head show unique adapations.
  • Eyes
    As you can see, manatees have small eyes. But despite the small size they can see very well. Do manatees have eyelashes? No, manatees have a protective covering called a nicitating membrane which can cover the eye to protect it.
Click on image for a closer look
Mote Marine Laboratory
  • Whiskers
    Facial whiskers on the manatee's head give it another sensory tool. Called "vibrissae", these facial whiskers may be as sensitive as our fingers. In fact, scientists at
    Mote Marine Lab have trained manatees to choose between two targets using only the vibrissae. How? The manatees are blindfolded and then they touch two targets that have different width grooves or ridges with their whiskers--and they can tell the difference between the two!
Vibrissae (whiskers)
  • Lips
    Manatees have very unique lips that help them gather, grasp and manipulate food. Since manatees don't have hands, their prehensile lips are very important, helping the manatee eat almost like the elephant's trunk helps it eat. The manatee's lips involve a large, split upper lip. The left and right sides can move independently to move the food into place-almost like a separated lip and each one they can use to manipulate things in their environment very, very well.

    Prehensile lips

  • Teeth
    The teeth or "dentation" of manatees is very unique. They have just one kind of teeth-- hind molars. And they have what's called "hind molar progression". also know as "marching molars". This means that their teeth are constantly moving forward. When the teeth get to front of the row on both top and bottom, they wear down from just the chewing--of whatever vegetation they're chewing--and the roots are resorbed so what they end up with is just a plate. Then by the time they get to the front of the row the plate falls out and the next tooth is moved forward. So it's a constant resorption and moving of the roots up the jaw with new teeth being emerged from the back. And it's an indeterminant number of teeth.

    Ranger Betsy Dearth discuss manatee teeth
    Manatee Jaw with
    "Marching Molars"
    Manatee Skull

  • How many teeth do they have? At any one time, it can be about seven per quadrant. Usually calves have four teeth per quadrant, and as they get larger they may have seven in each quadrant. But over a lifetime,the number changes, because that rate of movement is different depending on their diet, and how much sand is in the area where they're feeding, and how coarse the vegetation is if they're feeding on coarse grasses you know their teeth are going to migrate more quickly than they would if they're just feeding on soft freshwater vegetation most of the time.

    In comparison to other mammals' teeth, Manatee teeth are very unique. Rather than having one tooth fall out and then be replaced in the same spot with another (vertically), Manatee teeth are just continually replaced horizontally (marching molars). Tooth replacement continues throughout their life.

  • Nostrils
    Manatee nostrils close tightly when they dive under water like a little valve, a very tight valve in the nostrils (kind of like nose-clips for humans.)

When manatees come back up to the surface, their nostrils open to take quick, deep breath. Take a look at this video clip:

Nostrils Open
USGS/Florida Caribbean Science Center
Nostrils Closed
Mote Marine Laboratory
Video Credit: SMC, International Film Projects


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