Even after his death, Snooty the manatee still has plenty to teach scientists

Snooty the manatee's gifts to science

South Florida Museum's Jeff Rodgers outlines many mysteries about manatees that Snooty helped to uncover over his 69 years. Bradenton Herald Mark Young
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South Florida Museum's Jeff Rodgers outlines many mysteries about manatees that Snooty helped to uncover over his 69 years. Bradenton Herald Mark Young

He was never in the wild during his 69 years on earth, yet Snooty’s contribution to understanding about all manatees is immeasurable.

Snooty proved that manatees are not only smart but retain long-term memory. He taught researchers that manatees see in color, and can clearly hear boat motors – and tend to turn left. And Snooty taught everyone that he was amazingly charming.

Bradenton’s mascot throughout his life, Snooty drowned on the night of July 22-23, after he got stuck in a plumbing access area. A hatch to the area apparently popped free and Snooty swam inside. Museum officials and other manatee experts continue to investigate what exactly happened.

But Snooty continues the gift of giving to science. He could still help with Alzheimer’s research.

Jeff Rodgers, COO and Provost for the South Florida Museum, talks about the knowledge gained from almost 70 years of studying Snooty. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

Snooty’s first time to turn scientific thinking upside down came when he was part of a test to gauge the manatee’s cognitive and long-term memory abilities, along with two other manatees at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. The test was fairly basic, with researchers trying to train the manatees in a type of “yes and no” paddle tapping project.

It took the two manatees at Lowry Park Zoo six months to be trained. It took Snooty two weeks.

Scientific interest in manatees didn’t reach full steam until the mid-1980s, according to Jeff Rodgers, South Florida Museum’s provost and chief operating officer. That’s largely because most researchers were under the assumption manatees were not smart enough to warrant a lot of study.

“The general consensus at the time was that manatees were dull-witted animals,” Rodgers said. “That was based on observations in the wild, but no one had an opportunity to interact with one. It was also based on brain studies. A manatee’s brain is softball-size and smooth, and lacks the nooks and crannies that tend to provide more brain activity.”

“Then came the memory part of it,” Rodgers said. “The research basically went away for six years. The researchers returned and Snooty nailed it on the first try, so it kind of displaced that whole dull-witted animal theory.”

So if you are boating and see a manatee and can see which way he is going, you can be sure the manatee will break to its left, which is good information for a boater to have when trying to avoid the manatee.

Jeff Rodgers, South Florida Museum provost and COO

The results of those tests branched into auditory testing to see how manatees hear and how well they can see. The primary purpose was to determine if there was a reason why so many manatees were being struck by boat propellers when they were clearly able to get out of the way.

Snooty taught scientists that yes, their vision isn’t great, but it isn’t as bad as researchers first assumed and that manatees can certainly hear boat motors.

Snooty science file 1
Snooty was beloved by his community and his value to the scientific community in understanding the manatee species as a whole is immeasurable. Tiffany Tompkins Bradenton Herald file photo

“So that led to lateralization testing to determine if manatees have a tendency to go left or right, and Snooty showed us that manatees do have a tendency to go left when stimulated,” Rodgers said. “So if you are boating and see a manatee and can see which way he is going, you can be sure the manatee will break to its left, which is good information for a boater to have when trying to avoid the manatee.”

Snooty also proved to researchers that, unlike whales and dolphins, manatees see in color. Snooty proved that, unlike their closest relative the elephant, manatees never stop cycling in new teeth. Elephants go through about six cycles, but manatees keep getting new ones.

“So you have a 69-year-old manatee that still had to go through teething pain,” Rodgers said.

Snooty’s charm

Snooty’s scientific contributions are remarkable and ground-breaking. But it was his personality that led a community to fall in love with him. Just how charming could he be? That was also tested.

“We did an informal study to see how manatees respond to music, and Snooty tended to ignore music until we played Michael Buble, Elvis Presley’s rendition of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love.’

“Snooty popped up out of the tank and listened to the whole song and swam back under when it was over,” Rodgers said. “He really didn’t respond to a whole lot of other music, but he loved Elvis Presley songs.”

Coming to Florida many years ago from New York, Rodgers said he hadn’t known anything about manatees.

“When I first met Snooty, what I learned was, he recognized voices and people,” he said. “Manatees don’t have great eyesight, but they can see and recognize trainers and people and it doesn’t have to be voice-activated. That surprised me the most. You have an animal here that literally recognizes you and your voice in a way that you don’t expect. It surprised me to no end.”

Snooty’s charms didn’t end with the human race. His presence while the museum helped rehabilitate 33 manatees over the course of Snooty’s life was invaluable.

“Just like any juvenile when they are brought into a new environment, they look to the adult to see where to eat and where to go,” Rodgers said. “It’s also a level of comfort that Snooty provided that made this place like no other rehabilitation facility. Snooty tolerated the ‘Are you my mother?’ behavior over many years, helped the other manatees acclimate and say, ‘Here’s how to be a manatee here while you are here.’”

Of the three manatees currently undergoing rehabilitation that were in the tank when Snooty swam into a plumbing access area and drowned, Gail, the female, was closest to Snooty. The two young males bonded with each other and spent a lot of time together, and Gail was noticeably “a little out of sorts when Snooty wasn’t there anymore. She has since taken to socializing with the other two manatees, so even in this tragedy we’ve learned that manatees can adapt quickly.”

Snooty’s contributions aren’t over

Through his necropsy, researchers have determined that at 69 years old, Snooty was still able to reproduce. It is known that female manatees eventually stop giving birth, but it was never known until now that male manatees can reproduce throughout their life.

During his life, Snooty helped researchers determine how male manatees find female manatees in heat. A University of Florida study determined that female manatees release hormones in their urine that male manatees can track. Snooty proved the theory when researchers released samples of the urine into his tank.

“Snooty swam faster, did barrel rolls and was swimming with greater vigor,” Rodgers said. “He was clearly excited and told us a lot about manatee reproduction.”

Snooty could potentially help in two other areas. A couple of evolutionary scientists secured some of his fecal matter before his death and are studying the evolutionary links between manatees and elephants. The University of South Florida is in possession of Snooty’s brain and, because of the manatee’s remarkable long-term memory capabilities, researchers are hoping that Snooty’s brain will teach them more about Alzheimer’s disease.

“If he can help us understand humans and have an impact on human health, that’s a remarkable gift,” Roders said. “Sometimes you seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and sometimes knowledge is applicable. Snooty’s contributions spans the range and has, and will continue to help us with our conservation and rehabilitation efforts — because Snooty was involved in all of those research projects.”

The life of Snooty

July 21, 1948: Snooty is born on The Prinz Valdemar, a Danish warship that capsized in the Miami harbor in 1926 and later became a floating restaurant and the Miami Aquarium Tackle Company.

1949: ‘Baby Snoots’ comes to Bradenton for the Desoto Celebration.

1966: Snooty moves to the newly constructed South Florida Museum.

1979: Manatee County Commissioners declare Snooty to be the county’s official mascot.

1982: Snooty gains even wider fame when the children’s television show, Captain Kangaroo, films him as part of a documentary on manatees.

1985: A hydrophone placed in Snooty’s tank reveals for the first time the high-pitched squeaks as Snooty’s vocalization.

1987: Snooty begins training to aid researchers trying to determine how well manatees hear at different frequencies.

1993: Snooty moves into his newest home, a 60,000-gallon exhibit in the newly constructed Parker Manatee Aquarium.

1998: The Parker Manatee Aquarium joins the Manatee Rehabilitation Network and is introduced to his first tank mate, Newton. During his life, Snooty hosted 33 rehabilitating manatees.

2008: Snooty celebrates his 60th birthday at his annual Birthday Bash and Wildlife Festival. His life history makes him one of the most renowned stewards for endangered species and the environment.

2013: More than 6,000 guests visit the South Florida Museum to celebrate Snooty’s historic 65th birthday. It’s the largest crowd in the museum’s history.

2015: Snooty is officially certified as the world’s oldest captive manatee by Guiness World Records.

July 22, 2017: Snooty enjoys a birthday cake of fruits and vegetables at his 69th birthday celebration.

July 23, 2017: The South Florida Museum announces that Snooty has died in a accident.

Information provided by South Florida Museum