Students from Sarasota High School visited Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium Tuesday, Dec. 1, to deliver freshly grown lettuce from their school garden to feed Mote’s resident manatees as part of a new, pilot, community-based school program.

Manatees are massive, slow moving aquatic herbivores with an estimated lifespan of more than 50 years. The Florida manatee is currently listed as an endangered species and there are approximately only 6,000 Florida manatees in the wild.

Mote houses the two most extensively trained manatees in the world, Hugh and Buffett. By training these animals, Mote scientists are able to provide them better care and learn about their senses and behaviors, collecting valuable information that resource managers can use to conserve wild manatee populations.

Mote scientists are currently investigating the physiological adaptations of Florida manatees. The primary goal of this study is to determine baseline oxygen consumption and metabolic rates of manatees. The researchers will measure cardiovascular, metabolic, and heat production of trained manatees during sedentary and active periods. The collected data may allow for a physiological assessment of manatees in rehabilitation facilities, improving the ability to determine when a manatee is ready to return to the wild.

Hugh and Buffett have provided researchers a better understanding of how to conserve this endangered species. However, they are not only important to research and conservation: They are animal ambassadors who help the next generation learn about our oceans.

Mote has recently formed a partnership with Sarasota County public schools, UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota, and Florida Farm to School, Farm to Community (F2SC) to coordinate an educational opportunity for students to grow romaine lettuce in their school gardens for Hugh and Buffett who consume 72 heads of romaine lettuce and 24 bunches of green kale daily to meet their nutritional needs.

“The partnership allows students, who may be the next generation of scientists, to experience their local food shed in action, from field to plate, while learning about manatee conservation through hands-on explorations,” said Brad Tanner, Senior School Programs Coordinator at Mote.

Through this program, students learn about agriculture as part of their school curriculum, grow romaine lettuce, among other varieties, in their school garden and then deliver extra romaine to Hugh and Buffett while learning about the manatees. The three participating schools of the pilot program are Bay Haven elementary school, McIntosh Middle School and Sarasota High School.

Mote’s manatee care procedures and protocols are becoming the standard for manatee care and are replicated at most other facilities, with Mote staff providing their expertise to organizations worldwide. None of this success would be possible without the high quality food that fuels Mote’s manatees.

“Mote’s role in this partnership is to facilitate conservation through manatee research,” said Kat Boerner, Supervisor of Manatee Research at Mote. “Hugh and Buffett are here so we can learn as much about them as possible and support the development of new conservation efforts for the wild population. We want to translate what we’re doing here to the community to help ensure they become better stewards of the ocean.”

All food supplied to Hugh and Buffett is restaurant grade quality and must meet USDA standards. Because the manatees are herbivores, consuming up to 8 – 10 percent of their body weight each day, their food costs associated are greater than the daily rations of all of the other animals housed at the Aquarium combined. To ensure food safety and standards, the school-grown lettuce is analyzed and given a quality check before being served to Hugh and Buffett.

“This effort by local schools to grow and supply sustainably farmed produce helps decrease the Aquarium’s food budget, educate students on food sustainability and manatee conservation and strengthen Mote’s ties with the local community,” Boerner said. “What these kids are doing – learning about agriculture, learning about manatee conservation and helping us feed our manatees – is just incredible and I’m so grateful for this partnership.”

UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota and F2SC ensures each participating school is equipped with the necessary resources and tools to grow romaine lettuce utilizing organic practices, and Mote is working with teachers to coordinate field trips for students to transport the harvested produce to Mote while interacting with Mote staff and scientists.

“School garden programs have been gaining momentum over the last few years in Sarasota County, and community partnerships play a large role in maintaining school garden success,” according to Zach Glorioso, Farm to School, Farm to Community Coordinator. “The Farm to Feed project with Mote is a wonderful example of how education is being translated into real world experiences for students in Sarasota County. I am excited to see how this project will progress and how we can engage the greater community to support school garden efforts for long-term sustainability and impact.”

The experiential learning opportunity is designed to create a sense of place for students, helping them to appreciate their role in a local food system and the importance of proper nutrition for all life through community partnerships with common goals to foster sustainability.

“The most fulfilling part of this partnership is that we are learning from each other,” Tanner said.

Research work with Hugh and Buffett was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (IOS-0920022) to Gordon B. Bauer. The research was conducted under permit MA837923 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Hugh and Buffett are on exhibit in Mote Aquarium throughout normal hours: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. every day of the year. Visitors of all ages can learn about manatees and see these extraordinary animals up-close.

Sarasota High School Students, each holding a fresh romaine lettuce plant, line up next to the open top of Hugh and Buffett's large outdoor tank. One of the manatees is partially visible under the water.A group of Sarasota High School students stand next to Hugh and Buffett's large open outdoor tank. Some students hold heads of romaine lettuce. One boy is tossing his head of lettuce into the tank where many heads of lettuce float around. A manatee nose sticks up in the middle of the tank, making ripples in the water as it nibbles on the lettuce. Off to the side a girl looks over the edge of the tank at a sea turtle swimming just under the water.Two Sarasota High School students, a boy and a girl, look through a large, glass window in the side of Hugh and Buffett's tank, watching the manatee under the water. The manatee is looking back at them. Another manatee floats in the background as heads of lettuce float on the surface.