Believed by many to have inspired seafarers’ mermaid and siren stories, the dugong (Dugong dugon) is a gentle, graceful giant of the seas. Much like whales and oceanic dolphins, dugongs are marine mammals; interestingly, though, they’re actually more closely related to elephants. They’re a unique (albeit uncommon) sight in Philippine waters—important members of our local ecosystems that are in danger of getting wiped out.
Growing up to 10 ft (3 m) long and weighing around 882 lb (400 kg), dugongs can stay underwater for up to 6 minutes before they need to surface for air. These massive creatures are covered with sensory bristles that detect vibrations in their environment. They also use these to search for food, making up for their poor eyesight. Dugongs love snacking on low-fiber seagrass; however, when their preferred food is scarce, they munch on algae instead. Their simple stomachs, long intestines, and low metabolism are well-suited for their mainly seagrass diet, though they’re also known to occasionally add shellfish, sea squirts, polychaete worms, and other invertebrates to their menu.
The dugong is the last surviving member of the Dugongidae family, and is one of four living species under the order Sirenia. The other three are manatees, and while all four sirenians are sometimes called “sea cows,” there are ways to tell them apart. For starters, manatees inhabit both saltwater and freshwater, while dugongs are strictly marine mammals. Additionally, dugongs have fluked tails, while manatees’ tails are paddle-shaped. Manatees also have better eyesight, though all sirenians have decent hearing.
“Since dugongs are rare and elusive, it is not widely known that dugongs still roam our waters,” explained environmental scientist and conservationist Erina Pauline Molina, who noted that dugongs are sparsely distributed in marine areas across the country. “Dugongs still exist in the Philippines, and we should do our best to protect them and prevent their local extinction.”
Dugongs contribute to nutrient cycling and energy flow as they graze on seagrass, and their feces fertilize the soil for plants to quickly grow again. Experts look at dugong populations in a specific area to gauge that marine ecosystem’s general state. Because of their bulky bodies, big bones, and durable skin, dugongs don’t have a lot of natural predators to worry about. Unfortunately, their numbers have signficantly decreased over the years due to relentless hunting, pollution, and habitat destruction.
According to Molina, even just spreading awareness about dugongs in the Philippines is a contribution to the overall conservation effort. “Together, we should shed light on this species before we lose this vital part of our marine biodiversity,” she said. “And when you see them, always remember to respect their home.”
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