Mastodons & Manatees: Bradenton’s South Florida

Walking in the door to the South Florida Museum, I was met by a mastodon skeleton. Maneuvering my way to the second floor, I
connected to Parker Manatee Aquarium where Snooty, a 57-year-old manatee waved from his 60,000 gallon tank.

Scooting back downstairs, I discovered the door to Bishop Planetarium where my mind boggled at the “Passport to the Universe�? show, which hurtled me through galaxies, skimmed me past meteors and generally made me feel like an inconsequential ant.

The South Florida Museum is located in the sleepy town of Bradenton, Florida, between Tampa and Sarasota on the Gulf side of the state. It’s not huge, but it’s full of high-octane exhibits that feed the brain.

“The mastodon’s name is Phyllis. They named it before realizing it was actually a male,�? explained Holly Hall, the museum’s marketing director. Divers found the skeleton in the Aucilla River near Tallahassee in 1967. Hall noted this was a facsimile and the real Phyllis resides at the University of Florida.

Dugongs were my next learning curve. A wall display explained the sea cow-ish creatures are found off Africa and India and have a fluked tail (unlike the Florida manatee’s rounded paddle tail). I think I fell in love with the aquarium’s oldest permanent resident because of that ping-pong paddle tail (he coyly flipped it right in my direction). I got there in time for a lunch date. Snooty eats 120 pounds of veggies (romaine, kale, broccoli and carrots) a day. The 1,200-lb. mammal’s fave meal is pineapple. “You have to eat a lot to maintain the kind of figure Snooty has,�? explained the handler, adding, “He has an 88-inch waist.�?

Snooty was 11 months old when he was brought to Bradenton as part of a local Hernado de Soto
celebration in 1949. The authorities didn’t really have a plan but figured they’d have him on their hands for around five years. He’s likely outlasted the bunch of them and, never learning to survive in the wild, he hasn’t gone anywhere.

A couple of pals were swimming around with him– both young orphan rescues that were set for release come the warmer weather. In 2005, 396 of Florida’s remaining 3,142 manatees were lost, most due to boating accidents.

On the way out of the museum, I paused to look at a case filled with bone fragments. In the corner was a round white lump the size of a walnut. It looked like coral. I read the label. It was one of Snooty’s molars. He must have hit a tough piece of pineapple. I hope the tooth fairy was good to him.

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