Some animals defy description. Certain others make you doubt the architecture of evolutionary processes. That is, until you realize there is none.
The name Dugong(Dugong dugon) is derived from the the malay word duyung meaning “lady of the sea“. They are the only strictly herbivorous marine mammal with a rather vast range, being found throughout the east coast of Africa and going east all the way into the Pacific islands.
They are shaped like a bulbous torpedo to which is attached a vacuum-like mouth. At first glance, one wonders how they could have survived with a surfeit of predators patrolling all around them.
However, appearance are quite deceptive. Adult Dugongs are giants and are not easy to tackle except for great white sharks and killer whales. Also the dolphin-like tail that they possess, help in moving at rapid speeds in water.
Dugongs are related to manatees and are similar in appearance and behavior. Both are also genetically related to the elephant, although there is no similarity in appearance or behavior.
Female manatees usually give birth at 3 years and continue to do so every 2 – 3 years. Their pregnancy is a full year long. That is something quite akin to their cousin the elephant that have 18 month pregnancies. Due to their long lifespan (70 years) and slow rate of reproduction, and because dugongs continue to be hunted across their range, they are IUCN’s list of being vulnerable to extinction.
Dugongs are bottom-feeders and graze on seagrass and aquatic plants. They usually rip the plant from the soil, swish it gently to remove sand, then eat it. They sometimes pick a number of plants before beginning to eat, stacking them in calm water near shore. They “walk” on their rear fins as they feed, leaving distinctive trails on the bottom. They are found only in shallow, coastal habitats, where they occur singly or in small herds of 3-5 members. Their dives are normally shorter than the manatees, lasting little more than a minute.
Sailors being rather starved for any human contact on long sea voyages have taken them for mermaids and many a seafarer’s tale is studded with references to them.
The Dugong had one relative in it’s family, the stellar sea cow, which was rather larger than it(25 – 30 ft.). They lived in the North Pacific and were found near Alaska and Russia.
It went extinct in the late 19th century. Some believe due to hunting. Not much is known about the behavior of Stellar’s sea cows. They also lived in shallow coastal water, feeding on vegetation, sometimes in very large groups.
Dugong are very vulnerable right now because local populations are endangered due to habitat loss and hunting. They can also become caught in fishing nets as by-catch and drown.
Let us hope the graceful ladies of the sea can find some respite from conservations efforts that are being aggressively launch to help them.
Some Conservation efforts for you to support: