Skip to main content

The Verge Review of Animals: the dugong

The Verge Review of Animals: the dugong


A manatee-elephant-cow-mermaid we can all relate to

Share this story

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Julien Willem/Wikimedia Commons

This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Previously, we've written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.

If you want to make a child understand the basic concept of evolution, show her a video of a dugong. If she doesn't run away crying within five seconds — there is something inexplicably alarming about the dugong at first glance — she'll immediately start to recognize elements of her other favorite animals in the buoyant, bizarre, yet undeniably adorable physiology. He's got the build of a manatee, and the incredible active snout of an elephant. And most of the time he can be found chomping up sea grass in an immediately familiar manner to any grazing beast you might encounter in the drier parts of our planet.

Like manatees, dugongs are a member of the sirenia order of sea mammals, and sirenians' closest living relatives are elephants. (Wikipedia didn't say anything about where Q*bert fits into all of this.) Sirenians are commonly referred to as "sea cows" or "sea pigs" but that's more a human association than an evolutionary one. Perhaps more flatteringly, depending on your feelings about cows, the name "sirenia" derives from the mermaid temptresses that Odysseus tied himself to his ship to avoid. This is supposedly because sailors used to mistake the sight of a dugong swimming alongside a boat for a mermaid sighting back in olden times. Not coincidentally, "dugong" comes from the Malay word "duyung," meaning "lady of the sea."

The dugong transforms into single-minded food vacuum

Something in me flinches at the idea of women, cows, and dugongs being interchangeable in the minds of these sailors; it kind of reminds me of Michelangelo's fundamental lack of understanding of the female physique. The dugong exists at the intersection of so many conflicting ideas that it's been hard for me to figure out how to feel about it. I love elephants; elephants are the best animal on earth besides dogs (Ed. note: Emily is demonstrably wrong about the dog thing). Mermaids are unfuckwithable. I've got no special love for cows or manatees, but both are solid, classic animals, traits the dugong shares. Although dugongs mostly live and work in solitude, when they do squad up, they are highly effective — and able to migrate in large numbers in search of available food. Dugongs are pretty diligent creatures when it comes to food. Compare it with its closest cousin: when a manatee feeds underwater, it pretty much looks like any other mammal taking a break for a snack — goes in for some bites, comes up to chew. Dugongs, on the other hand, really get in there, transforming into single-minded food vacuums and leaving a literal cloud of sand in their wake.

We have all been there, and yet, there is something deeply alienating about the dugong. Like some of the best sea creatures, they look like an evolutionary footnote, some whimsical accident that has been allowed to flourish. But it's been a hard road for the dugong: they're a protected species, mostly because of all their woeful glitches. They have relatively poor eyesight, making their young vulnerable to predators including sharks and crocodiles. They are also pretty susceptible to illness, particularly parasites and bacterial infections (remora, the suckerfish often seen clinging onto dugongs, are harmless to them). Everyone wants a piece of the dugong, and they're just out here trying to eat.

Everyone wants a piece of the dugong, and they're just out here trying to eat

All of the dugong's weaknesses end up just making the species more relatable. Who hasn't gone through a winter where it feels like you're getting the flu every other week? Their visual limitations mean they are more reliant on touch — babies stay in almost constant physical contact with their mothers when they are younger. (If you want to ruin your day, please watch this video of an injured baby who got separated from its mom and is crying actual tears out of its tiny eyeholes.)

But it all comes back to food, and that's where the dugong and I really find common ground. The dugong is the largest herbivore in the ocean, but will frequently feed on small invertebrates like jellyfish — what is more aesthetically hardcore than eating a jellyfish? (Ed. note: Emily is absolutely correct on this point) — and shellfish. In some parts of the world, up to half of the dugong's diet consists of animals. That's right, the lady of the sea is a flexitarian — the dietary manifestation of every bad stereotype about the inconsistency and flightiness of women. But framed another way, maybe the dugong is just incredibly chill; if you get a little béchamel sauce on her field roast scramble, she won't freak.

The Dugong

Verge Score: 6.8


Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Flexatarianism

  • Cute-ish

  • Chill

  • Sweet to friends, family, and remora

  • An eater, not a fighter

Bad Stuff

  • Flexatarianism

  • Poor eyesight

  • Addicted to content

  • Look like a mistake when they're eating