Manatees or sea cows have a “long distance” Sense of Touch, a new study by researchers from the University of Florida in Gainesville has revealed.
According to the research, the manatees' tactile sense is so finely tuned that the animals experience "touch at a distance", an ability to "feel" objects and events in the water from relatively far away.
Renowned for their touchy-feely behaviour, manatees have been known to approach unwitting swimmers, close their eyes, open their mouths, and lean forward to get a feel of the object.
During their study, marine biologists Roger Reep and Diana Sarko found that the giant mammals are covered with special whisker-like hairs that act as sensors.
"We discovered that manatees have what are called tactile hairs all over their bodies, unlike most mammals, which just have whiskers on their faces," National Geographic quoted Reep from the university's College of Veterinary Medicine as saying.
The team found that together these tactile hairs formed a kind of sensory array, possibly allowing the animals the ability to detect changes in current, water temperature, and even tidal forces.
“As for a manatee puckering up for a diver, that's just the animal's way of collecting information by spreading out the hairs around its mouth to sense what it's approaching. Those facial hairs are actively exploring the environment around them. But it might have liked you. I can't be sure," said Sarko.
According to the two, the new discovery might explain how manatees perform complex tasks, such as making long and convoluted migrations in murky water, despite having poor eyesight.
“One example is the impressive journey made by manatees in a mazelike network of waterways called Ten Thousand Islands near Naples, Florida. When you go out there for the first time in a boat and you don't know the area, you get lost in about two minutes. It's a really an intricate environment. But manatees navigate the watery labyrinth every day, leaving the rivers each morning to forage in the large beds of sea grass offshore before swimming back inland at night,” he said.
“So the question is, how do they know where they're going? We're talking about relatively dark water, and we already know manatees don't have very good visual acuity anyway. So one of the possibilities here is that they're able to use their tactile hairs that are all over their bodies to detect the movement of water and tell them where they are in the environment, and that they're using their sensory hairs as a navigational tool," he added.
The manatees’ extraordinary sense of touch might explain all this behaviour as in a previous study Reep and Sarko had found that manatees have more brain space dedicated to the sense of touch than other mammals do.
The research, published last month in the journal Brain, Behavior and Evolution, found that brain regions associated with touch were "especially large" in manatees.
"That just reinforced our idea that manatees really are relying on their sense of touch to be able to navigate their world," Sarko said.