The dugong is a large marine mammal found in the warm waters surrounding Indonesia and Australia. Although the dugong can be found widely throughout the Indo-Pacific tropics, the highest population of the dugong is concentrated around northern Australia.

Although the dugong looks extremely similar to a manatee, the two are different species. The dugong and the manatee are very closely related and can look almost identical until you look at their tail. The tail of the dugong is typically forked like the tail of a shark, where the tail of the manatee is broad and flat, and slightly more flipper looking than fin looking. Dugongs are smaller than manatees with the average adult dugong reaching lengths of around 3 meters and weigh nearly 400 kg, which is about the same as a large cow. The front flippers of the dugong can be as much as half a meter in length.

It is thought the legends of mermaids may have originated when sailors from a distance glimpsed dugongs swimming in the water, and mistook them for half-human half-fish creatures. These mermaid legends are also said to be true of the dugongs larger cousin, the manatee.

Dugongs inhabit the warm shallow waters, and despite their large size, dugongs are strictly herbivorous animals and have been referred to as the cows of the sea. Dugongs graze on sea grasses and aquatic plants that grow in abundance in the tropical shallows. Dugongs eat large amounts of sea plants and often leave feeding trails behind of bare sand and uprooted sea grass.

Female dugongs give birth to just one calf about once every five years. The baby dugong is born underwater in the warm shallows, where the baby dugong is immediately able to swim to the surface in order to take its first breath. When the baby dugong is born, the dugong calf is about a meter in length and weighs about 20 kg. The dugong calf will stay close to its mother until the baby dugong is about 2 years old. Dugong populations are constantly decreasing, with many dugongs being accidental victims in large commercial fishing. Dugongs are now considered to be vulnerable animals but the dugong will commonly get older than 70 years of age. Dugong calves will not reach their full size until they are about 15 years old.

Distribution and Habitat Edit

Dugongs are found in warm coastal waters from the western Pacific Ocean to the eastern coast of Africa, along an estimated 140,000 kilometres (86,992 mi) of coastline between 26° and 27° degrees to the north and south of the equator. Their historic range is believed to correspond to that of seagrasses from the Potamogetonaceae and Hydrocharitaceae families. The full size of the former range is unknown, although it is believed that the current populations represent the historical limits of the range, which is highly fractured. Today populations of dugongs are found in the waters of 37 countries and territories. Recorded numbers of dugongs are generally believed to be lower than actual numbers, due to a lack of accurate surveys. Despite this, the dugong population is thought to be shrinking, with a worldwide decline of 20 per cent in the last 90 years. They have disappeared from the waters of Hong Kong, Mauritius, and Taiwan, as well as parts of Cambodia, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. Further disappearances are likely.

Dugongs are generally found in warm waters around the coast with large numbers concentrated in wide and shallow protected bays. The dugong is the only strictly-marine herbivorous mammal, as all species of manatee utilise fresh water to some degree. Nonetheless, they can tolerate the brackish watersfound in coastal wetlands, and large numbers are also found in wide and shallow mangrove channels and around leeward sides of large inshore islands, where seagrass beds are common. They are usually located at a depth of around 10 m (33 ft), although in areas where the continental shelf remains shallow dugongs have been known to travel more than 10 kilometres (6 mi) from the shore, descending to as far as 37 metres (121 ft), where deepwater seagrasses such as Halophila spinulosa are found. Special habitats are used for different activities. It has been observed that shallow waters are used as sites for calving, minimising the risk of predation. Deep waters may provide a thermal refuge from cooler waters closer to the shore during winter.

Ecology and Life History Edit

Dugongs are long lived, and the oldest recorded specimen reached age 73. They have few natural predators, although animals such as crocodiles, killer whales, and sharks pose a threat to the young, and a dugong has also been recorded to have died from trauma after being impaled by a stingray barb. A large number of infections and parasitic diseases affect dugongs. Detected pathogens include helminths, cryptosporidium, different types of bacterial infections, and other unidentified parasites. 30% of dugong deaths in Queensland since 1996 are thought to be because of disease.

Although they are social animals, they are usually solitary or found in pairs due to the inability of seagrass beds to support large populations. Gatherings of hundreds of dugongs sometimes happen, but they last only for a short time. Because they are shy, and do not approach humans, little is known about dugong behaviour. They can go six minutes without breathing (though about two and a half minutes is more typical), and have been known to rest on their tail to breathe with their heads above water. They can dive to a maximum depth of 39 metres (128 ft); they spend most of their lives no deeper than 10 metres (33 ft). Communication between individuals is through chirps, whistles, barks, and other sounds that echo underwater. Different sounds have been observed with different amplitudes and frequencies, implying different purposes. Visual communication is limited due to poor eyesight, and is mainly used for activities such as lekking for courtship purposes. Mothers and calves are in almost constant physical contact, and calves have been known to reach out and touch their mothers with their flippers for reassurance.

Dugongs are semi-nomadic, often travelling long distances in search of food, but staying within a certain range their entire life. Large numbers often move together from one area to another. It is thought that these movements are caused by changes in seagrass availability. Their memory allows them to return to specific points after long travels. Dugong movements mostly occur within a localised area of seagrass beds, and animals in the same region show individualistic patterns of movement. Daily movement is affected by the tides. In areas where there is a large tidal range, dugongs travel with the tide in order to access shallower feeding areas. In Moreton Bay, dugongs often travel between foraging grounds inside the bay and warmer oceanic waters. At higher latitudes dugongs make seasonal travels to reach warmer water during the winter. Occasionally individual dugongs make long-distance travels over many days, and can travel over deep ocean waters. One animal was seen as far south as Sydney. Although they are marine creatures, dugongs have been known to travel up creeks, and in one case a dugong was caught 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) up a creek near Cooktown.

Feeding Edit

Dugongs, along with other sirenians, are referred to as "sea cows" because their diet consists mainly of sea-grass. When eating they ingest the whole plant, including the roots, although when this is impossible they will feed on just the leaves. A wide variety of seagrass has been found in dugong stomach contents, and evidence exists they will eat algae when seagrass is scarce. Although almost completely herbivorous, they will occasionally eat invertebrates such as jellyfish, sea squirts, and shellfish. Dugongs in Moreton Bay, Australia, are omnivorous, feeding on invertebrates such as polychaetes or marine algae when the supply of their choice grasses decreases. In other southern areas of both western and eastern Australia, there is evidence that dugongs actively seek out large invertebrates. This does not apply to dugongs in tropical areas, in which faecal evidence indicates that invertebrates are not eaten.

Most dugongs do not feed from lush areas, but where the seagrass is more sparse. Additional factors such as protein concentration and regenerative ability also affect the value of a seagrass bed. The chemical structure and composition of the seagrass is important, and the grass species most often eaten are low in fibre, high in nitrogen, and easily digestible. In the Great Barrier Reef, dugongs feed on low-fibre high-nitrogen seagrass such as Halophila and Halodule, so as to maximize nutrient intake instead of bulk eating. Seagrasses of a lower seral are preferred, where the area has not fully vegetated. Only certain seagrass meadows are suitable for dugong consumption, due to the dugong's highly specialised diet. There is evidence that dugongs actively alter seagrass species compositions at local levels. Dugongs may search out deeper seagrass. Feeding trails have been observed as deep as 33 metres (108 ft), and dugongs have been seen feeding as deep as 37 metres (121 ft). Dugongs are relatively slow moving, swimming at around 10 kilometres per hour (6.2 mph). When moving along the seabed to feed they walk on their pectoral fins.

Due to their poor eyesight, dugongs often use smell to locate edible plants. They also have a strong tactile sense, and feel their surroundings with their long sensitive bristles. They will dig up an entire plant and then shake it to remove the sand before eating it. They have been known to collect a pile of plants in one area before eating them. The flexible and muscular upper lip is used to dig out the plants. This leaves furrows in the sand in their path.

Reproduction and Parental Care Edit

A dugong reaches sexual maturity between the ages of eight and eighteen, older than in most other mammals. The way that females know how a male has reached sexual maturity is by the eruption of tusks in the male since tusks erupt in males when testosterone levels reach a high enough level. The age when a female first gives birth is disputed, with some studies placing the age between ten and seventeen years, while others place it as early as six years. There is evidence that male dugongs lose fertility at older ages. Despite the longevity of the dugong, which may live for 50 years or more, females give birth only a few times during their life, and invest considerable parental care in their young. The time between births is unclear, with estimates ranging from 2.4 to 7 years.

Mating behaviour varies between populations located in different areas. In some populations, males will establish a territory which females in heat will visit. In these areas a male will try to impress the females while defending the area from other males, a practice known as lekking. In other areas many males will attempt to mate with the same female, sometimes inflicting injuries to the female or each other. During this the female will have copulated with multiple males, who will have fought to mount her from below. This greatly increases the chances of conception.

Females give birth after a 13–15 month gestation, usually to just one calf. Birth occurs in very shallow water, with occasions known where the mothers were almost on the shore. As soon as the young is born the mother pushes it to the surface to take a breath. Newborns are already 1.2 metres (4 ft) long and weigh around 30 kilograms (66 lb). Once born, they stay close to their mothers, possibly to make swimming easier. The calf nurses for 14–18 months, although it begins to eat seagrasses soon after birth. A calf will only leave its mother once it has matured.

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