Dugong (Dugong dugon)

Also known as: sea cow
  
Spanish: Dugon
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderSirenia
FamilyDugongidae
GenusDugong (1)
SizeLength: 2.4 - 4 m (2) (3)
Weight230 - 908 kg (2) (3)

Classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List (1). Listed on Appendix I of CITES (4), and Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention) (5).

The dugong is the only entirely marine mammal to feed exclusively on plants (3) (6) (7) (8), a trait that leads to its other common name of 'sea cow'. These large, rotund animals have short, paddle-like front flippers and a fluke-like tail, with a straight or concave edge, that is used for propulsion. The thick skin is a brownish-grey colour and there are short, coarse hairs sparsely distributed over the body but concentrated as bristles on the muzzle (2) (3) (7). All dugongs grow tusks but these only break the skin, and therefore become visible, in mature males (2). The large, rounded snout ends in a cleft, muscular upper lip that hangs over the down-turned mouth (2) (3).

The dugong has a wide range throughout the Indo-Pacific region, from the east coast of Africa to islands of the western Pacific, such as Vanuatu (1) (3) (7) (8). Many populations are today severely depleted or almost extinct; the majority are found off the coast of northern Australia (3) (8), with the world’s second largest population found in the Arabian Gulf (8) (9).

The dugong is a seagrass specialist that inhabits shallow and protected coastal waters in tropical seas (2) (3) (8) (10). More strictly marine than manatees (Trichechus species), the dugong is seldom found in freshwater (2) (3).

Dugongs are usually seen as solitary individuals or in a group of two, although larger groups of several hundred individuals have often been recorded. The most stable and long-lasting groups appear to be mother and calf pairs. The single calf, born after a gestation period of around 13 to 14 months, measures over a metre in length at birth, and suckles from the female for around 18 months (2) (3) (7) (11). Dugongs can be extremely long-lived, reaching ages of 70 years or more (2) (3) (7).

Both dugongs and manatees have a low metabolic rate, allowing them to exist on a herbivorous diet, and consequently they usually move relatively slowly. They have pectoral mammary glands reminiscent of human breasts. These features, and their nursing behaviour, may have caused sailors to liken them to mermaids or sirens; hence the order name of 'Sirenia' (2) (3). Although most seagrass beds upon which dugongs feed occur at depths of 1 to 5 metres (2), they are known to feed at depths of up to 33 metres (8). Using the flexible upper lip to rip out whole plants, dugongs leave characteristic furrows known as 'feeding trails' on the sea floor (3) (6). Dugongs are more closely related to elephants than the cows after which they are named, and have a particularly long large intestine to aid digestion (3) (11).

The dugong has been traditionally persecuted by humans throughout much of its range for its meat, hide and oil. Its rather slow movement, large size and dependence on coastal habitats have made the dugong particularly vulnerable to human impacts, while the low reproductive rate, long generation time and high investment in each offspring mean populations can take a long time to recover from any losses (2) (3). Fishing nets have also been a major cause of population decline, as dugongs are unable to hold their breath for more than about 12 minutes and therefore easily drown once entangled (6). In addition, the seagrass ecosystems on which this species depends are highly sensitive to human impacts, such as from mining, trawling and dredging (8).

Dugongs have decreased in number throughout their range to the extent that in some areas only relict populations remain, but a significant stronghold still persists in Australia (6) (8). Even here, however, these animals are under threat from fishing nets, habitat loss from the silting of sea grass beds, pollution, boat traffic and illegal hunting (6).

International trade in dugongs is banned by its listing on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (4). The species is found within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is currently working with other agencies in an effort to halt the decline in the dugong (6). An action plan is also in place for the species (8), and in Australia a system of 16 Dugong Protection Areas, where there are key populations, has been established, and there is ongoing research into the dugong’s distribution and behaviour. However, the IUCN report that little effective management intervention has yet been put in place to reduce the human impacts on the dugong (1). Measures such as the protection of its seagrass habitat will be crucial if this gentle ‘mermaid of the sea’ is to survive (8).

For more information on the dugong see:

To find out more about dugong conservation projects, see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (August, 2009)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  3. Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. CITES (August, 2009)
    http://www.cites.org
  5. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (August, 2009)
    http://www.cms.int
  6. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (June, 2002)
    http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/info_services/publications/sotr/latest_updates/marine_mammals
  7. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  8. Marsh, H., Penrose, H., Eros, C. and Hugues, J. (2002) Dugong Status Reports and Action Plans for Countries and Territories. UNEP, Kenya. Available at:
    http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/2002-001.pdf
  9. Hellyer, P. and Aspinall, S. (2005) The Emirates: A Natural History. Trident Press Limited, London.
  10. Heinsohn, G.E., Wake, J., Marsh, H. and Spain, A.V. (1977) The dugong (Dugong dugon (Muller)) in the seagrass system. Aquaculture, 12: 235 - 248.
  11. Bryden, M., Marsh, H. and Slaughnessy, P. (1998) Dugongs, Whales, Dolphins and Seals: A Guide to the Sea Mammals of Australasia. Allen and Unwin, New South Wales.