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Dugongs Mermaids and Manatees

We all know dolphins, sharks, octopuses but how many of us know about manatees and dugongs? Sadly we know more of the sirenias of the folklore variety than we do of the manatees and the dugongs. Yes, manatees and dugongs are scientific genus called "sirenia". The siren is a distinct classification of aquatic sea life with special characteristics and all of the characteristics are a direct parallel of the mermaid. And yet the mermaid is not recognized formally as a true marine creature. For you see mermaids are listed in mythology while manatees and dugongs are known and documented creatures of the sea.

Can you describe the distinctive characteristics of the classification called "sirenia"? Can you recognize the difference between a manatee and a dugong? Yes, I know you can recognize a mermaid and you probably could readily derive what the merfolk are but the manatees and the dugongs are beautiful and playful creatures of the sea. These are large creatures who in some cases are often over 1000 pounds and sometimes even tip the scale near 3000 pounds! Are these aquatic creatures the closest connection to our prehistoric times? Can you swim with a manatee and pet its stomach? Are these creatures endangered or extinct? Where can we swim with a manatee? Join us for a few minutes and learn these items and much more.

Australian Dugong

Australian Dugong is at risk in Moreton Bay in Queensland

Australian Dugong is at risk in Moreton Bay in Queensland

Where Do Dugongs Live?

Dugongs live in warm water in:

  • swamps,
  • rivers,
  • estuaries,
  • marine wetlands, and
  • coastal marine waters.

Diagram of the Relationship Between the Dugong and the Elephant

black and white line drawing of a Diagram of the Relationship Between the Dugong and the Elephant

black and white line drawing of a Diagram of the Relationship Between the Dugong and the Elephant

Estuary

"An estuary is a partly enclosed coastal body of brackish water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the open sea."

Dugongs and Manatee Similarities

"The mammals in these four orders all lack a clavicle, and have nails or hooves instead of claws. Sirenian evolution is not fully understood. They likely originated in Eurasia and/or Africa.."

Dugongs are more rare or perhaps even non-existent in our part of the world. Our friends on the Eastern continents may have some dugongs. Some are said to exist in the Persian Gulf. The exact numbers of their populace is hard to approximate. What is known is that millions of years ago both the manatee and the dugong were much more populated throughout the globe.

Interestingly, the dugong is smaller than the manatee. And while we lack complete knowledge about the evolution, these two mammals are similar in nature in that they lack a clavicle and need to breath air. Interesting, it appears both can hold their breath for about 15-20 minutes. What I found fascinating is they stated when a manatee is sleeping they float to the surface for a quick breath of air - while they are sleeping! Amazing!

What also is similar about these aquatic animals is the fact that since they both don't "breath" underwater, they need to be close to the surface of the water and therefore prefer shallow warm water.

Dugong and the Possibility of Extinction

bar chart graph showing the population change of the dugong from 1940 to 1990

bar chart graph showing the population change of the dugong from 1940 to 1990

  • The Wonders of the Seas: Chessie
    Chessie is a male West Indian Manatee who, in summer 1994, earned his name by showing up in Chesapeake Bay, much further north than the species is known to travel. (Manatees normally live in Florida and the Caribbean).

Manatee Facts

  • Marine animal that only eat plants.
  • No natural predator.
  • Algae often grows on their back.
  • Dozens of manatees die from contact with speed boats.
  • Manatees move very slowly.
  • No tolerance for cold water.
  • Manatees can reach 15 feet long, 3000 lbs.
  • Needs to breath every 15-20 minutes even while sleeping.

Crystal River, Florida USA

Swim with the Manatee in Crystal River Florida

"Because the water temperature in the springs of Kings Bay, the headwaters of Crystal River remains a constant 72-degree temperature, over 400 manatees will migrate to Crystal River each winter to seek refuge from the cold Gulf waters. Every year, a number of manatees remain in the bay throughout the summer months. These resident manatees, and the abundance of manatees that migrate here in the winter make swimming with the manatees in Crystal River an unforgettable experience. Crystal River is one of the only rivers in Florida where people can legally interact and swim with the manatees in their natural habitat. Please respect the manatees while on your manatee swim tour, we are a guest in their home.

Manatees are very gentle, slow-moving, graceful swimmers. They eat aquatic plants and can consume 10-15% of their body weight daily. Manatees come to the surface to breathe on the average of every three to five minutes. If they are using a lot of energy, they may surface to breathe as often as every 30 seconds. When sleeping they may only surface every 20 minutes or so."

Manatees Face Extinction - Yellow Code of Vulnerable

categories of extinction as set forth by the IUCN - Red List Methodology Chart

categories of extinction as set forth by the IUCN - Red List Methodology Chart

Endangered Species

"Manatees and dugongs, also known as sea cows, are endangered species belonging to the scientific Order Sirenia. All four living species are vulnerable to extinction from habitat loss and other negative impacts related to human population growth and coastal development. Manatees and dugongs are the only marine mammal herbivores. Unlike the other marine mammals (dolphins, whales, seals, sealions, sea otters, walruses, and polar bears) sirenians only eat seagrasses and other aquatic vegetation. Unlike other marine mammals, sirenians have an extremely low metabolism and zero tolerance for cold water."

Dugongs and Manatees are Beautiful

dugongs and manatees are beautiful

dugongs and manatees are beautiful

dugongs and manatees are beautiful

dugongs and manatees are beautiful

Manatee

Dugong and Manatee Terms You Must Know

Flukes - the shape of the tail. Essentially each lobe of the tail is called a "fluke". A deep notch separates the two flukes. They are made of dense tissue, having no bone.

Siren: any of several aquatic, eellike salamanders of the family Sirenidae, having permanent external gills, small forelimbs, and no posterior limbs.

Sirenia: "Sirenia, commonly sirenians, are also referred to by the common name sirens, deriving from the sirens of Greek mythology. This comes from a legend about their discovery, involving lonely sailors mistaking them for mermaids."

Manatee: A type of sirenia, often about 13 feet long having a paddle like tail.

Dugong: an herbivorous, aquatic mammal, Dugong dugon, of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, having a barrel-shaped body, flipperlike forelimbs, no hind limbs, and a triangular tail: widespread but rare. Approximately 8-10 feet. Few are known to exist, five are in captivity - protected species. Often called the sea cow. Can weigh in at 800 pounds having a split tail.

Mermaid: Also considered part of the siren family but deemed a fictitious female marine creature, believed to have a head, torso, and arms of a woman and the tail of a fish.

Facts About the Manatee

  • Florida manatee also known as the West Indian Manatee
  • Average about 10' long and 1,000 lbs but can reach up to 3,000 lbs
  • Flat paddle tail
  • Likes to chew on rope
  • Can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes
  • Cannot handle cold water
  • Needs water above 68 degrees
  • Can suffer cold stress
  • Will migrate in search of warm water
  • Favorite destination in the United States is Crystal River in Florida - November through March
  • Can hear a manatee by hearing their breathing
  • Manatees enjoy rolling over onto their tummy
  • Love their tummies rubbed
  • Can live up to 60 years
  • Have no natural predators
  • Humans cause up to 50% of their death
  • Sadly, propeller scars are common on manatees
  • Gentle giants

Where Do Manatees and Dugongs Live? Sirenian Distribution Throughout the World

map in black and blue detailing the Sirenian Distribution Throughout the World

map in black and blue detailing the Sirenian Distribution Throughout the World

"According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, no one knows just how many manatees there actually are. Although aerial studies are done every year, they are not very exact due to changing weather conditions, water clarity, and manatee behavior. Because of this, scientists are forced to evaluate the manatee population by monitoring statistics such as adult survival rates, reproduction, and population growth rates.

The IUCN Redlist has categorized manatees as being Vulnerable. According to the IUCN, the vulnerable classification means an animal "is not Critically Endangered or Endangered but is facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future."

Endangered Manatees

Two Manatees Posing for the Camera - Beautiful Sea Creatures that are Endangered

Two Manatees Posing for the Camera - Beautiful Sea Creatures that are Endangered

Manatees and Dugongs

What We Know About Manatees and Dugongs

  • Air breathing herbivores
  • Herbivores are animals that are adapted to eat plants
  • Exclusively eat plants
  • Closest relative - elephants
  • Essentially aquatic pachyderms in the water
  • Manatee have different tails - more paddle shaped
  • Dugongs have more fluke shaped tails
  • Cling to survival in a few corners of the world
  • Central Florida
  • Weighs more than one ton
  • Is it too premature to remove from list of endangered species?

Test Your Knowledge of Manatees and Dugongs

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Manatees and Dugongs both only eat plant life?
    • True
    • False
  2. Manatees and Dugongs are both of the genus serenia?
    • True
    • False
  3. The genus serenia includes merfolk?
    • True
    • False
  4. The common elements of the manatees, dugongs and the merfolk are:
    • Cannot breath under the water
    • Can weight more than 1000 lbs
    • Eat only vegetation
    • Are all extinct
    • Are all endangered
    • Are all mythological
    • Can hold their breath for more than 60 minutes
  5. Manatees are playful and you can swim with them in Florida?
    • True
    • False
  6. Manatees and different from dugongs most noticeably by their tail?
    • True
    • False
  7. Manatees prefer shallow, warm water?
    • True
    • False
  8. A close relative of the manatee and the dugong is the elephant?
    • True
    • False

Answer Key

  1. True
  2. True
  3. True
  4. Cannot breath under the water
  5. True
  6. True
  7. True
  8. True

Closing Thoughts on Dugongs and Manatees

Manatees are beautiful creatures that I celebrate. I celebrate their existence every time I teach a swim fitness/water aquatics class. I have a mermaid movement and a manatee movement that all my clients know. Both of these exercises challenge the user both in cardio and in their core. But that is a story for another day. Thank you for joining me here today!

© 2014 Kelly Kline Burnett

Comments

Kelly Kline Burnett (author) from Southern Wisconsin on August 05, 2020:

Hi Marie,

I learned allot from your comments - never knew: - manatees with seaweed or - Columbus' thought on the creature. The manatees and dugongs are homely but in a 'cute' manner. Kinda like a jolly dinosaur of the sea. Thank you so much for sharing!

Kelly Kline Burnett (author) from Southern Wisconsin on August 05, 2020:

Hi Marie, Great insights - thank you so much for sharing. I never heard the seaweed head story or the thoughts from Columbus. Great additions.

Marie Flint from Jacksonville, FL USA on June 03, 2020:

My daughter got to scratch a manatee's tummy in Florida. I have never seen one in person, only in pictures. I'm sure I would like the creature because of its gentleness.

In grade school, I remember reading the speculation that mermaids were manatees with seaweed caught on their heads. If I remember correctly, Columbus thought the creature quite homely.

Thank you for sharing this information. The more we know of the plants and animals with which we share our planet, the more humble and grateful we become.

Kelly Kline Burnett (author) from Southern Wisconsin on November 25, 2014:

I want to see a manatee in person (and a dugong too!).

Kelly Kline Burnett (author) from Southern Wisconsin on November 25, 2014:

Mary615,

Yes, the boat propellers are problematic for these beautiful creatures. Thank you very much for stopping by and sharing.

Kelly Kline Burnett (author) from Southern Wisconsin on November 25, 2014:

PegCole17,

I have never seen a mantee or dugong in person. I am looking forward to this miracle on earth! Oh, what a great way to describe them - gentle giants - love that term.

JoanCA on July 02, 2014:

I saw manatees when I was in Florida years ago. They're fascinating animals and really amazing to see.

Mary Hyatt from Florida on July 02, 2014:

I live in S. Florida and I have taken my kids and grandkids to see the Manatees many times. We have a big problem with boats and the manatees. Sometimes the boat propeller will cut into a Manatee, especially if the boat is going too fast in the area where the Manatee like to swim.

You did a wonderful job with all this info. Voted UP and shared.

Peg Cole from Northeast of Dallas, Texas on July 02, 2014:

When I lived in Florida, we used to see these creatures in the shallow inlets and waterways all the time. They really are beautiful in their own way, such gentle giants. Nice write-up with interesting facts and the photos were amazing.

Kelly Kline Burnett (author) from Southern Wisconsin on May 16, 2014:

SMW1962,

I love animals and feel strongly the animals of the sea are left out of our educational system. Just as philosophy and logic are not "taught", so too, the animals both extinct and those endangered are not mentioned in our educational system.

I find it sad our coral reefs are being harvested, I find it sad we don't know what a manatee is or a dugong yet we all know the mythical creature call merfolk? Where are our values? Celebrating nature should be paramount to our educational system. Dugongs and mantees are beautiful creatures.

A fitness friend named one of her moves the jellyfish - I shouted with joy! I named one swim fitness move mermaid because we keep the feet together and another the manatee but I didn't really know what a manatee was so learning out it helped allot. It is a beautiful and large creature - very appropriate for my large swim fitness exercise movement that targets the abdominal muscles.

Thank you for the accolades - very much appreciate it.

smw1962 on April 12, 2014:

I had not known of these fascinating animals before. Thank you for this well written, informative Hub.

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