Sailors aboard merchant vessels in the late 1700s often encountered mysterious, smooth-bodied creatures gliding through the waters of the West Indies. Initially mistaken for mermaids, these gentle giants are now known as manatees and dugongs. Commonly referred to as sea cows, these aquatic mammals belong to the order Sirenia within the Dugongidae family. They spend their days gracefully floating in search of sea plants and share a similar appearance, causing some confusion in distinguishing between the two species.

In this article, we aim to shed light on the key differences between dugongs and manatees, delving into aspects such as size, habitat, appearance, and behavior. Additionally, we will answer several frequently asked questions about these fascinating marine mammals to help clarify any remaining uncertainties.

Comparing Dugongs and Manatees

Dugongs and manatees, both fascinating marine mammals, have some distinct differences. Dugongs grow up to 13.32 feet and weigh between 551 to 2,240 pounds, while manatees can grow up to 15.1 feet and weigh from 800 to 3,913 pounds.

Dugongs inhabit the Indo-West Pacific’s shallow coastal waters, like bays, harbors, and mangrove channels, and are exclusively saltwater creatures. In contrast, manatees can be found in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, Amazon Basin, and West Africa, inhabiting marshy coastal areas and rivers and living comfortably in both saltwater and freshwater.

These gentle giants also differ in appearance. Dugongs have a wide, short snout and thin mouth that point downward, while manatees have a divided upper lip and a shorter snout. Dugongs have tusks, but manatees replace their molars throughout their lives and don’t have canines. Dugongs possess fluked, dolphin-like tails, which differentiate them from manatees with paddle-shaped, beaver-like tails.

Furthermore, dugongs have smooth skin, while manatees are rough in texture. West Indian and African manatees have fingernails while dugongs don’t. Finally, dugongs feed on seagrass and some invertebrates, using their lips and teeth to rip out plants, while manatees eat sea and freshwater plants and algae, using their flippers to walk along the bottom and scoop food toward their mouths.

When it comes to mating and reproduction, dugongs are monogamous and give birth around 10 years old, while manatees are polygamous with females giving birth at around 3 years old.

The 9 Key Differences Between Dugongs and Manatees

Size Differences in Dugongs and Manatees

Manatees are known to grow longer and heavier compared to dugongs, but some individual dugongs can grow bigger than most manatees. Dugongs have an average length of 9.8 feet with some reaching up to 13.32 feet. Manatees, on the other hand, can grow up to 15.1 feet long and weigh up to 3,913 pounds.

Habitats of Dugongs and Manatees

Dugongs can be found in the Indo-Pacific region while manatees’ habitats are varied based on their species. The Amazon Basin is home to the Amazonian manatee, the West Indian manatee can be found in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, and the West African manatee inhabits West Africa. Dugongs prefer shallow, saltwater areas, and manatees can adapt to both saltwater and freshwater environments.

Snout Shape and Structure

Dugongs have a downward-pointing, trunk-like snout, while manatees possess a shorter, divided upper lip snout that aids in food gathering and communication.

Teeth in Dugongs and Manatees

Dugongs possess incisors, or tusks, which emerge when males reach puberty. Manatees, however, do not grow tusks but have what is called marching molars that grow from the back of the mouth, pushing older teeth forward.

Tail Shape Variations

Dugongs have a fluked, dolphin-like tail, while manatees possess paddle-shaped tails similar to a beaver’s. Both species generate movement by flapping their respective tails up and down.

Skin Texture and Composition

Dugongs have thick and smooth skin, with colors ranging from light gray to dark gray or brown. Manatees, in contrast, have rougher and wrinkled skin that is just as thick as a dugong’s.

The Presence of Nails on Flippers

Dugong flippers do not have nails, while the West Indian and African manatees possess three or four tiny nails at the end of their flippers that play a role in gripping the seafloor.

Diet and Feeding Habits

Dugongs primarily consume seagrass and occasionally eat invertebrates. Manatees, in addition to seagrass, eat a variety of freshwater grasses and sometimes small fish. Dugongs prefer to graze on the bottom of the sea, while manatees employ their flippers for digging and grasping plants and roots.

Mating and Reproduction Patterns

Dugongs are monogamous, mate for life, and bear offspring between the age of 6 and 17 years. Manatees, however, are polygamous and can reproduce by the age of 3 years.

Frequently Asked Questions About Dugongs and Manatees

Dugongs and manatees both have impressive lifespans – they can live up to 65 or 70 years old and reach sexual maturity at a young age. These gentle creatures can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes, although they usually surface for air every few minutes.

Even while sleeping, dugongs and manatees need to breathe. They achieve this by floating on their backs near the water’s surface, allowing them to sleep and breathe at the same time.

Various factors threaten these slow-moving creatures, such as predators like crocodiles, pollution, and climate change. Unfortunately, they are considered endangered species and are protected under the Endangered Species Act. As solitary creatures, they may form herds for short periods for activities like lekking. Their diet mainly consists of shellfish and vegetation found underwater.

Since dugongs and manatees are gentle animals, it’s crucial that we protect and preserve their habitats to ensure their survival and continued coexistence with other marine life.

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