According to a paper published on August 24th, 2022 in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the Dugong is now “functionally extinct” in China. These gentle marine mammals, sometimes referred to as sea cows, are one of four species of the order Sirenia. They are the cousins of the Amazonian manatee, West Indian manatee, West African manatee, and the now extinct Steller’s sea cow. These peaceful creatures invoked myths of mermaids and fantasy, existing in Chinese waters for thousands of years. Now, because of habitat loss, food loss, hunting, and collisions with watercraft, the Dugong is now one step closer to meeting the fate of their Steller cousin, and only other member of the Dugongidae family.
The Dugong is a gentle giant, weighing 800 or more pounds and reaching up to 10 feet in length. The name sea-cow is part due to their appearance, in part due to their habits. Much of their time is spent grazing underwater seagrass. Most often in the America’s when someone uses the term sea-cow, we think of manatees. Being cousins, they are actually quite similar. The main differences between the two, aside from genetics and location, are that the Dugong has a broader snout and a fluke-shaped tail like that of a dolphin, whereas the manatee’s tail is much more paddle-shaped.
Like many long-lived species, put to 70 years in some cases, the Dugong has an exceptionally slow breeding rate. When you’ve got all the time in the world, why rush? The problem is, when their populations are disrupted, bouncing back isn’t so simple. Combine that with a worldwide decline in seagrass, and you have a recipe for disaster.
The study published this past Wednesday was based on interviews with about 800 fishermen in southern China, the very people who would surely see the slow-moving creatures if they were indeed there.
This unfortunate news means that the dugong is the first large vertebrate to go functionally extinct in Chinese waters, but if future predictions are any indication, they certainly won’t be the last.
Functional Extinction vs Full Extinction
Make no mistake, the tragedy of functional extinction is not something to be taken lightly, but it is different than the full-on extinction, like that of the dinosaurs, that you may be thinking. Functional extinction, if anything, is more tragic. It means a continued existence for some without hope for a future. It means that even if some individual dugongs still remain off the Chinese coast, their numbers are far too small to maintain or increase a population that could persist into the future. However, as it stands, a dugong has not been spotted in Chinese waters in nearly two decades.
The Future of Dugongs
Some 100,000 dugongs remain in the wild off of the coasts of nearly 40 countries. Sadly, based on recent findings and predicted trends, the future looks bleak for many of those populations.
It’s a sobering reminder that our actions as humans do not occur in isolation and have lasting impacts far beyond what we may expect, and far beyond the time spans of our individual lives.
As easy as it would be to say it’s up to each of us to make changes in our individual lives, or to care more, if we want to save dugongs now and in the future, I’m not going to go there. Of course, there are things we can do as individuals. But if anything in this world is ever going to get better, it won’t be because we did things on our own. It will be because we joined together toward a common goal.
How do we begin? I’m not certain. I just hope we do before it’s too late.
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The Wild Life was created in January of 2017 by, me, Devon Bowker (He/They) after finishing my degree in wildlife biology. It’s been amazing to see how things have changed over the past 5 years, both personally and here. I have tons of ideas and projects in the works and cannot wait to share them with you. Whether you’re a long-time follower or new to The Wild Life, thank you for being here.