Trivia Tuesday: Dugongs

Every Tuesday we'll share a few fun animal facts with you from experts all over the country.

Today's expert: Dr. Caryn Self-Sullivan, president and cofounder of the conservation group Siernian International. After Crittr's own Linda Lombardi visited one of the few dugongs in captivity at the Toba Aquarium in Japan, she spoke to Dr. Self-Sullivan about the fascinating animals.

  • Dugongs and manatees are the only living members in the order Sirenia, named after the Sirens in Greek mythology. Dugongs are believed to be the origin of the legend of the mermaid, although sailors must have been at sea for a really long time if they could mistake these creatures for beautiful women.
  • Dugongs and manatees are the only vegetarian aquatic mammals. All the rest, from dolphins to otters, eat other animals, such as fish, small crustaceans and even other mammals.
  • Dugongs and manatees are more closely related to elephants and hyraxes than to other sea mammals like dolphins and whales.
  • The easiest way to tell dugongs and manatees apart is by looking at the tail. Dugongs have a forked tail similar to a dolphin’s flukes. Manatees have a round, paddle-shaped tail.
  • Since dugongs are mammals, they have hair, nurse their young, and breathe air — so even though they live their whole lives in the sea, they must surface to breathe occasionally.
  • There are only five dugongs known in captivity, and none in North America. They're in Australia, Singapore, Indonesia and Japan, which is Serena, the one shown in the video above.
  • The largest numbers of wild dugongs in the world live off the coast of Australia, and the second-largest numbers are found in the Persian Gulf. Small populations live along the coast of at least 37 countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • Dugongs can live a long time. The record is 73 years, although most don't survive that long among all the risks found in the wild.
  • Dugongs frequent shallow waters near the coast where their diet of seagrass is found, so they are easily threatened by human activity, including hunting, loss of habitat, and entanglement in fishing nets.
  • A female dugong generally has a calf once every three years, and the young stay with mom for up to two years. The long relationship may be heartwarming, but it also means it's hard for endangered populations to recover since these animals don't reproduce quickly.

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