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A Dugong and Diver (photograph by Duane Yates)

There are about 120 living species of marine mammals (although that total may tragically become much smaller in the very near future).  Of this number, only one species is herbivorous.  The mighty dugong (Dugong dugon) is the last animal of its kind, a gentle lumbering remnant of the giant herds of sirenian grazers which once graced the world’s oceans. Dugongs are distinct from the three extant species of manatees (the world’s other remaining sirenians) in that they never require fresh water at any point of their lives.  Additionally dugongs possess fluked tails in the manner of dolphins and whales.

Dugong Range

Dugongs live in shallow tropical waters of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.  They range from Madagascar to the Philippines, but are only common along the north coast of Australia (where conservation efforts and a limited human population have allowed them to live in peace).  Dugongs can swim in deep oceans for a limited time, but prefer to stay on continental shelves where they can feed on seagrass and marine algae.  Their all-salad diet does not prevent them from growing to substantial size: some individuals have been known to reach more than 3.5 meters in length (11 feet) and weigh over 950 kilograms (nearly a ton).  Although Dugongs can live more than seventy years, they reproduce extremely slowly.  Females gestate for over a year and then suckle their calf for around 18 months. Calves may stay with their mothers for many years after being weaned and need almost contact with their mothers for security and affection until they are almost grown. Young dugongs swim with their short paddle-like flippers, but adults use their tail for propulsion and only steer with their flippers.

Dugong and Calf

Dugongs have a variety of vocalizations with which they communicate.  Usually they live in small family units.  Great herds are not unknown but  seagrasses do not grow in sufficient quantity to support such numbers together for long.

Like the other sirenians, Dugongs have dense bones with almost no marrow (a feature known as pachyostosis).  It has been speculated that such heavy skeletons help them stay suspended just beneath the water in the manner of ballast.  The lungs of dugongs are extremely elongated, as are their large elaborate kidneys (which must cope with only saltwater).  Additionally, the blood of dugongs clots extremely rapidly.

Dugongs face a number of natural threats, particularly storms, parasites, and illnesses.  Because of their large size they are only preyed upon by alpha predators such as large sharks, killer whales, and salt-water crocodiles.  As with other marine animals, the greatest dangers facing dugongs come from humankind.  For millennia Dugongs have been hunted for meat, oil, and ivory. Traditional medicine from various portions of their range (wrongly) imputes magical properties to parts of their bodies. Worst of all, dugongs are frequent victims of boat collisions or are killed as by-catch by fishermen trying to catch something else.

Close-up of a Dugong (Julien Willem)

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