Photo: Dugong under water

Possibly the inspiration for mariners' tales of mermaids, dugongs are closely related to elephants.

Photograph by OSF/D. Fleetham/Animals Animals—Earth Scenes

Map

Map: Dugong range

Dugong Range

Fast Facts

Type:
Mammal
Diet:
Herbivore
Average life span in the wild:
70 years
Size:
8 to 10 ft (2.4 to 3 m)
Weight:
510 to 1,100 lbs (231 to 499 kg)
Group name:
Herd
Protection status:
Threatened
Size relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man:
Illustration: Dugong compared with adult man

These enormous vegetarians can be found in warm coastal waters from East Africa to Australia, including the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Pacific.

Dugongs are related to manatees and are similar in appearance and behavior— though the dugong's tail is fluked like a whale's. Both are related to the elephant, although the giant land animal is not at all similar in appearance or behavior.

Dugongs graze on underwater grasses day and night, rooting for them with their bristled, sensitive snouts and chomping them with their rough lips.

These mammals can stay underwater for six minutes before surfacing. They sometimes breathe by "standing" on their tail with their heads above water.

Dugongs spend much of their time alone or in pairs, though they are sometimes seen gathered in large herds of a hundred animals.

Female dugongs have one calf after a yearlong pregnancy, and the mother helps her young reach the surface and take its first breath. A young dugong remains close to its mother for about 18 months, sometimes catching a ride on her broad back.

These languid animals make an easy target for coastal hunters, and they were long sought for their meat, oil, skin, bones, and teeth. Dugongs are now legally protected throughout their range, but their populations are still in a tenuous state.

Some believe that dugongs were the inspiration for ancient seafaring tales of mermaids and sirens.

Mammal Features

  • Photo: Close-up of an African lion

    Animal Conservation

    Find out what National Geographic Society is doing to save animals all over the world, and learn what you can do to help.

  • hawaiian-monk-critter-cam.jpg

    Crittercam Helps Study Rare Species

    The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the oldest species of seal on the planet. But their tenure in paradise is perilously close to its end; only about 1,100 seals remain in the wild.

  • Masai Mara Lion

    Lions Quiz

    The king of cats rules with a roar and a fierce bite. What else do you know about this top predator?

  • Photo: Lion bares his teeth

    Cause an Uproar

    Big cats are quickly disappearing. Now is the time to act. Cause an uproar to save big cats today.

Please select a test to run

Animals

From the Magazine

  1. Photo: Two adult preen, Ireland

    Gannets Pictures

    Champion divers but clumsy landers, doting parents but hostile neighbors—northern gannets abound in contradictions.

  2. Photo: Silent Ural owl

    Estonia's Ural Owls

    Photographer Sven Začek provides an intimate view of this large raptor.