The dugong is a medium-sized marine mammal related to the manatee and distantly related to the elephant. It has a plump body which tapers to a fluked tail reminiscent of a dolphin’s. The head is small and slopes downward to a heavy, bristle-covered snout. The skin is generally a pale cream color but can darken due to algae growth on its surface. Males will develop tusks during puberty. Adults can measure up to 6.5 feet (2 m) and weigh over 600 pounds (272 kg).
Dugongs subsist almost entirely on sea grasses, leisurely grazing in small herds and prompting their common name of “sea cow.” Like many marine mammals, dugongs are very social animals and communicate with each other through a series of chirps, clicks and whistles.
Although dugongs are long-lived, with some species reaching up to 70 years, they are slow to reproduce with females birthing only one calf every 2.5 to 7 years. The maximum known number of offspring ever produced by a female in her lifetime was twelve. Dugongs will also postpone breeding due to lack of food or various environmental factors including extreme weather like cyclones, plus pollution and habitat destruction. As a result of all these factors, the species is extremely vulnerable to extinction.
Dugongs live from the warm tropical waters of the western Pacific Ocean to the eastern coast of Africa. Their historic range coincided with that of sea grasses from the families Potamogetonaceae and Hydrocharitaceae. Scientists believe that dugongs once lived in the Mediterranean Sea but are now extinct in that region.
The dugong is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to its slow reproduction rate and the dwindling availability of sea grass due to human activities. Although they are legally protected throughout their range, in some parts of the world they are poached for their meat and oil. The dugong’s closest relative, the Steller’s sea cow, was hunted to extinction in the 19th century.