Tuesday, 6 October 2020

STELLAR SEA COW

This adorable aquatic vacuum is a dugong. I'd always grouped the dugongs and manatees together. There are slight differences between these two groups. Both groups belong to the order Sirenia. They shared a cousin in the Steller's sea cow, Hydrodamalis gigas, but that piece of their lineage was hunted to extinction by our species in the 18th century. Dugongs have tail flukes with pointed tips — similar to whales — and manatees have paddle-shaped tails, similar to a Canadian Beaver.

Both of these lovelies from the order Sirenia went from terrestrial to marine, taking to the water in search of more prosperous pastures, as it were. They are the extant and extinct forms of the oddball manatees and dugongs.

We find dugongs today in waters near northern Australia and parts of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. 

They inhabit rivers and shallow coastal waters, making the best use of their fusiform bodies that lack dorsal fins and hind limbs. I've been thinking about them in the context of some of the primitive armoured fish we find in the Chengjiang biota of China, specifically those primitive species that were also fusiform.

They favour locations where seagrass, their food of choice, grows plentiful and they eat it roots and all. While seagrass low in fibre, high in nitrogen, and easily digestible is preferred, dugongs will also dine on lower grade seagrass, algae, and invertebrates should the opportunity arise. They've been known to eat jellyfish, sea squirts, and shellfish over the course of their long lives. Some of the oldest dugongs have been known to live 70+ years, which is another statistic I find surprising. They are large, passive, have poor eyesight, and look pretty tasty floating in the water; a defenceless floating buffet. Their population is in decline and yet they live on.