Dugong is an aquatic mammal with thick, tough and smooth skin. The skin color of newborn dugongs is pale cream, darkening as they age, becoming deep slate gray on the sides and dorsum. The body of the animal is sparsely covered with hair, and the muzzle exhibits bristles. These herbivorous animals develop tusks, which are visible in adult males. The snout is large and rounded. The upper lip is cleft and muscular, hanging over the mouth, which is curved downwards. At first sight, dugongs look like whales, but they have evolved independently. Dugong is also known as the 'sea cow' due to grazing on seagrass, although the closest relatives of this animal are not cows but elephants.
Dugongs are distributed across the Indo-Pacific region, where they live in highly endangered and nearly extinct populations. They are found from the east coast of Africa to Vanuatu and other islands of the western Pacific. The highest concentration of dugongs is off the coast of northern Australia, whereas the second largest population occurs in the Arabian Gulf. Feeding upon seagrass, dugong prefers living in shallow and protected coastal, tropical waters. It generally inhabits salty waters and rarely occurs in freshwater.
Habits and lifestyle
Dugongs generally occur alone or in pairs, consisting of a mother and calf. However, they are known to form large groups of several hundred animals. As semi-nomadic animals, dugongs may either travel huge distances in search of specific seagrass or live in the same area throughout their lives. They usually have to travel when their main food, seagras, is in scarcity. When suitable seagrass is depleted, they move on, looking for new areas of feeding. Due to living in turbid waters, these animals are extremely hard to come across unless they are disturbed. When disturbed, these shy animals quickly flee. When they don't flee, they usually explore the vessel or diver from a distance without coming closer. In addition, dugongs are hard to keep in captivity, due to which there is very little information on their habits and behavior.
Diet and nutrition
Dugong is an herbivorous animal, which primarily feeds upon seagrass and marine algae, complementing its diet with shellfish and sea squirts, found in seagrass, as well as various invertebrates, including polychaete worms.
Dugongs are polyandrous, which means that one female has an exclusive relationship with two or more males. Dugongs may breed at any time of year. Males of this species are in constant search of receptive females. Reproduction usually depends on location, though they are known to have an extremely low birth rate, yielding a single young with intervals of 2.5 - 7 years. Gestation period is quite long, lasting for 13 - 14 months. Newborn dugongs are able to consume seagrass. However, it's maternal milk that helps them grow up with a fast rate. Young are nursed for more than 18 months, remaining close to their mother and typically riding on her back. Sexual maturity is reached within 6 - 12 years old in males and at 6 years old in females, although females of this species usually first give birth within 6 - 17 years old. Becoming mature, young dugongs rush to leave their mother, looking for mates.
One of the biggest threats to the population of this species is hunting for meat and oil. Dugongs are often incidentally caught in nets, targeting fish and sharks. This by-catch leads to high number of mortality because of insufficient oxygen supply. Ships, boats and other vessels may strike these animals down throughout their range. Another notable threat is habitat disturbance in a form of water pollution, which leads to destruction of seagrass beds that are the main food source for these animals. And finally, their population cannot increase due to extremely low birth rate of this species. On the other hand, dugongs cannot be bred in captivity.
According to the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), the overall Dugong population is estimated to about 85,000 animals, living in waters of northern Australia, from Shark Bay (Western Australia) to Moreton Bay (Queensland). Dugongs’ numbers are decreasing today, and currently these animals are classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List.
Fun facts for kids
- Dugongs are sea cows or sirenias. These animals are called 'sirenias', since their mammary glands and nursing habits are similar to those of humans'. Hence, sailors often call dugongs mermaids or sirens.
- The upper lips of these animals are very flexible, helping them snatch entire plants. After feeding, dugongs leave so-called 'feeding trails' - furrows, made on the sea floor.
- Immediately after birth, female dugongs push their offspring to the surface to breathe.
- In order to breathe, dugongs are known to stand on their tails, pointing their heads out of the water.
- Dugong has appeared about 50 - 60 million years ago, evolving form elephant-like animal, entering the water.
- Dugongs usually shake their head to clean seagrass from sand, and only then swallow it