Guest Author - Joy Alari
The Dugong is a large marine mammal, its closely related to the now extinct Stella’s sea cow, another cousin of the Dugong is the Manatee, thye both have almost the same physical features as well as behaviors, surprisingly the Dugong is also related to the largest land mammal, the elephant.
The word Dugong has Malay origins and it means "Lady of the sea", which this aptly captures the features of this gentle creature of the sea. Dugongs are also regarded as "sea cow" because they graze on grass, they are also called sea camel as well as sea pig.
The distinguishing features of a Dugong are its fusiform body, which means that its shaped like a spindle, Dugong do not have dorsal fins or hind limbs but can swim about by paddling its fore limb and tail, the Dugong has bristle like hairs close to its mouth, it also has a nose which is close to its snout.
The Dugong is said to have a very unique skull and teeth, its tail is shaped like a dolphin's and it is between 8 to 10ft tall, weighing between 510 to 1,100lbs[231-499kg]
The Dugong is strictly herbivorous, its main diet is the leaves of the grass that grow on the sea bed but most times, the Dugong can also snack on roots with its well adapted snout. When sea grass is scarce the Dugong would eat algae or small invertebrates, such as shell fish or jelly fish. The Dugong is also a finicky and clean vegetarian because it really takes its time to select the juiciest sea grass, then an amazing thing happens because after making its choice, the Dugong would always shake the sea grass, as if to free it of all dirt and sand before eating ... now how clean can you get?
You can never see a Dugong in a hurry because they always move in a slow easy pace, as if they have all the time in the world, when feeding the Dugong moves and supports it weight with its pectoral fins! And just like its cousin the elphant, the Dugong has a very long life span because it can live past its seventieth birthday!
Sadly for the Dugong, its being hunted for thousands of years by man, especially for meat, skin, bones, as well as oil and despite the fact that, it is now amongst the list of protected species in most countries, the Dugong is still hunted and is steadily on the brink of extinction.
Besides the fear of man the Dugong has other natural enemies, which includes killer whales, sharks, crocodiles, and even infectious diseases, which have all but steadily raised the bar for the decline of this vegetarian.
The Dugong is a very peaceful and social animal, usually you may see them in groups or pairs which are called herds, as they forage on the seabed but you may also catch a glimpse of a Dugong foraging alone, this is mostly when sea grass is low. Though nomadic the Dugong still remains within the same range for all its entire life, it can dive to such low depths to forage because it can survive underwater without breathing for up to six minutes!
The Dugong is sadly poor sighted and navigates with its sense of smell, especially to locate juicy sea grass. When a Dugong wants to communicate with the rest of the herd, its either with a sought of bark, chirp and even whistling sound.
Gestation for the Dugong is between thirteen to fifteen months, a calf is usually born in shallow water, after birth the mother Dugong would immediately push the calf up to the surface for air, although a Dugong calf would start eating sea grass soon after birth, it would still need to nurse from its mother for eighteen months, the bond between mother and calf is very strong, as the calf would stay with its mother until it reaches maturity, Dugong calves have even being seen riding on their mother's back.
Dugongs are considered to be the inspiration, for mermaid beliefs in many cultures across the world, the Dugong is regarded as a lot of things, from an aphrodisiac, to reincarnated women, to symbols of strength and also good or bad luck. In Japan the bones of a Dugong is specially used for carving.
Today, the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] has the Dugong on its red list and insists that this peaceful marine mammal, is a cause for concern because it is vulnerable, some countries have placed most of the Dugong’s habitat under protection, there is also an outright ban on hunting or fishing of the Dugong, we hope that the numbers of the Dugong would flourish once more as in the past.
If you want to catch a glimpse of this graceful vegetarian, then take a trip to Japan and see the male and female Dugong at the Toba Aquarium in Toba, Mie.