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.