An illustration showing a group of dugongs swimming under the sea
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Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Dugongs

15 August 2021

By Hissa Al Hitmi

Dugongs have fascinated the people of Qatar for decades, inspiring scientific research so as to learn how to best protect and preserve Qatar’s dugong population. Along the way we've all found out some pretty interesting facts.

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Throughout the summer of 2021 the National Museum of Qatar – in collaboration with ExxonMobil Qatar – has proudly presented Dugong Trails, Seagrass Tales.

The exhibition has sought to educate, inform and entertain the people of Qatar, with a view to expanding their awareness of the animals that surround the country's coastline.

But in case you needed any more persuading, here are ten fascinating facts that you may not know about the creatures affectionately known as the 'sea cows' of Qatar.

They are more closely related to elephants than to fish.

Dugongs are not classified as fish rather; they are considered to be marine mammals. One of the dugong’s closest land relatives is the elephant. They are even able to grow tusks when they reach maturity.

They breathe oxygen from above the surface.

Dugongs are able to hold their breath for up to 11 minutes. They can also dive to depths of around 33 metres.

Dugongs are herbivores.

They are the only marine mammals that are completely herbivorous. Despite their ancestry, dugongs are referred to as 'sea cows' because of their diet, which consists solely of sea grass.  They use their strong upper lips to uproot the entire plant to eat, which in turn leaves a trail of sandy paths across the sea bed.

An underwater shot of a dugong showing its thick skin, large body and small fins
An illustration showing a dugong's black eyes and small ears
They live long lives.

Dugongs can live more than 70 years. We can calculate their age by counting the growth layers in a dugong’s tusks. The oldest recorded dugong was 73 years old.

They are social creatures.

Dugongs are considered to be social creatures as they often travel in pairs but they can also, although rarely, be found in large herds of around 200. In February 2020 however, a large herd of 600-700 dugongs were spotted just off the Qatari coast. This was one of the largest herds ever recorded, anywhere in the world.

An illustrated group of dugongs swimming including mothers with calves
Dugongs, and their natural environment, are under threat.

Human activity has caused dugongs to become a threatened species. They often drown after getting tangled in fishing nets, and are often injured or killed by boat collisions as they feed in shallow waters.

They are often mistaken for manatees.

Dugongs belong to the sirenian family, of which the manatee is also a member. They have similar diets and can both be found in warm coastal waters. However, they differ in the shape of their tails, snout and their lifespans. Manatees have paddle-shaped tails, a whiskered snout and can live up to 40 years. Dugongs however, have a fluked tail (similar to a whale,) a bristled snout and have a much longer life expectancy.

Sailors mistook them for mermaids.

Dugongs were the inspiration for the myth of the mermaids as sailors often mistook them for what they believed to be mermaids.  Because they live in shallow waters, they can stand on their tails with their head above water. Such sightings were reminiscent of the tales of the mermaids in Greek mythology, thereby causing confusion among sailors.

They have exceptional hearing.

Because of their small eyes, dugongs have limited vision, but they make up for it by having incredible hearing. They communicate using chirps and squeaks that can travel through water. 

They are bashful beasts.

Dugongs are very shy creatures which makes it difficult for scientists to study them up close and learn about their behaviours. They are not confident around humans and will move away when they feel threatened.

Hissa Al Hitmi is an Editorial Coordinator at Qatar Museums.