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The Dugong ‘Sea Cow’ Is Going Extinct—Here’s What You Should Know

A new study says that the dugong sea cow is extinct in Chinese waters. Here's what you should know about the marine mammal.

Written by
Calin Van Paris
Published
August 26, 2022

It's a sad day for wildlife lovers (so, all of us): A new study says that the dugong—commonly known as a "sea cow"—is "functionally extinct" in China. As noted by the New York Times, functional extinction implies that while some dugongs remain off the Chinese coast, there are not enough left for the population's survival.

The study's information came from historical information and recorded sitings over four provinces.

Only 5% of 788 respondents reported past dugong sightings, with a mean last-sighting date of 23 years earlier, and only three respondents reported sightings from within the past 5 years. Historical records of dugongs peak around 1960 and then decrease rapidly from 1975 onwards [...] Based on these findings, we are forced to conclude that dugongs have experienced rapid population collapse during recent decades and are now functionally extinct in China.

Royal Society Open Science

The study adds that there have been "no verified field observations" of the dugong after 2000, making the marine mammal the first functionally extinct large vertebrae in Chinese waters.

How Did This Happen?

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the dugong sea cow's seagrass habitat has long been under threat due to pollution, the shift in the ecosystem diminishing their primary food source, and affecting their breeding habits. The dugong's existential threats also come in the form of accidental capture by fisheries and collision with boats—a too-common occurrence, as the majestic marine mammal is a draw for tourists.

An estimated 100,000 dugongs are still swimming in the oceans around forty countries like Australia and Indonesia, and there's no time like the present to appreciate them. Here are three facts about the peaceful animal you should know about.

3 Facts About the Dugong Sea Cow

1. Dugongs Are Cousins to the Manatee

The dugong sea cow is closely related to the manatee, though they distinguish themselves by eschewing fresh water. Dugongs are classified as sirenians and are assumed to have descended from land mammals—meaning that sea cows are more closely related to elephants than whales.

2. Sea Cows Inspired the Myth of Mermaids

Speaking of sirens, the slow-moving sea cow is thought to have inspired mermaid mythology. Christopher Columbus' mermaid sighting in 1492 is thought to be the first record of a manatee in North America.

3. Dugongs Are Herbivores

The dugong has no natural predators and grazes on the seagrass along the shallows of the Pacific and Indian Oceans—hence the bovine-inspired name and comparison.