Possibly the inspiration for sailors’ tales of mermaids, Dugongs are closely related to elephants and manatees. They are similar in appearance and behavior to a manatee, though the Dugong’s tail is fluked like a whale’s.
Dugongs graze on underwater grasses day and night and feeding is a principal activity of these mammals. They can stay underwater for about six minutes before surfacing and sometimes breathe by “standing” on their tail with their heads above water. They are seldom found in fresh water.
They are born a pale cream color, but they darken with age. The skin is thick, tough and smooth and they have a total of 10-14 teeth when they are an adult. Other common names include “sea cow”, “sea pig” and “ sea camel”. Dugongs can be very long-lived, reaching ages of 70 years or more.
These animals make an easy target for coastal hunters, and have been sought after for their meat, oil, skin, bones and teeth. Fishing nets have also been a major cause of their decline, as they easily drown once entangled in the net. They are now listed as endangered and legally protected, but their populations are still in a tenuous state.