Dugongs, those chubby sea mammals that once inspired nostalgic sailors with whimsical tales of mythical mermaids, have disappeared in China, new research finds.
For hundreds of years, these gentle giants, commonly known as manatees, have swum through Chinese waters, tearing up seaweed from the ocean floor with their detachable upper lip.
However, with no confirmed sightings of these animals in the region for more than two decades, an international team of scientists recently conducted an in-depth survey of local fishing communities in four Chinese provinces, looking for evidence of the dugong’s disappearance.
Historical data on dugongs peaked around 1960 and then declined rapidly from 1975. For example, no verified sightings were recorded by fishermen after 2008, and Chinese scientists have not sighted a dugong in the wild since 2000, researchers reported on Wednesday (August 24). ). in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
“Based on these results, we must conclude that dugongs have experienced rapid population collapse in recent decades and are now virtually extinct in China,” the scientists write in the study.
Dugongs have a rounded body, a broad, sloping face, and a flattened, ridged tail like that of a dolphin. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), adults can grow up to 4 meters long and weigh over 400 kilos.
They look similar to manatees (also called manatees), but while manatees inhabit freshwater ecosystems, dugongs live in shallow tropical ocean habitats from East Africa to Vanuatu, according to the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web (ADW) website. Manatees eat sea grasses like land cows graze lush grasslands on dry land, and according to the ADW, they are the only marine mammals that are strictly vegetarian.
Neither manatees nor dugongs look like humans, let alone attractive women with long hair and fish-like tails. But sailors likely only saw these animals for a very short time — just long enough to inspire whimsical tales of mermaids diving beneath the waves, according to National Geographic.
However, the true story of humans and dugongs is not a fairy tale. Because dugongs graze near shore, they are often hit by boats and trapped in fishing nets, and human activities have severely reduced or destroyed their coastal habitat in recent decades, the ADW said.
A handful of people have anecdotally reported seeing a dugong in Chinese waters in the past five years, but those sightings have never been confirmed, the new study’s authors found in their investigation. While it’s possible that some dugongs survive in the northern South China Sea, it’s also likely that recently sighted animals were misidentified or are isolated specimens of more stable dugong populations near the Philippines, the researchers said.
In addition, “it is highly unlikely that the dramatic population declines of the species in recent decades can be halted or reversed under current conditions,” the study states.
“The likely disappearance of the dugong in China is a catastrophic loss,” said Samuel Turvey, co-author of the study and professor at the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology, in a statement. “Their absence will not only impact ecosystem functioning, but will also serve as a wake-up call – a sobering reminder that extinctions can happen before effective conservation measures are developed.” »