• Image about Helene Marsh

Over the years, the dugong has inspired many a mythical tale, but now it’s in danger of becoming nothing but a story of the past.

FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, sailors reported ocean sightings of beautiful fish-tailed women frolicking in the waves, singing sweet music, and luring men to a briny demise. Ideas about the creatures have been perpetuated through the centuries -- in everything from Homer’s Odyssey to Arabian Nights to a number of Disney films -- by great storytellers who’ve captivated audiences around the world with mermaid mythology. The spectacle of young women swimming in mermaid costumes remains a staple of Florida tourist shows. And a mermaid image even appears in the Starbucks logo. No scaly-tailed seductress actually exists, of course. Instead, historians believe that the ancient sailors were enthralled by a strange aquatic creature that, although 10 feet long and 800 pounds, apparently reminded them of a woman.

Known as a dugong, the animal exists in isolated colonies scattered throughout the oceans. But it may not exist for long, considering that it’s listed variously as endangered, rare, depleted, and extinct. It’s one of the planet’s least-understood creatures.

Fossils date the dugong’s origins back to 50 million years ago, but mankind’s knowledge of the animal is practically zero. Aside from the locations dugongs have been sighted at, where they live remains a mystery, as does the exact number of them that are left. Aerial surveys of dugong populations show that their numbers are on a steep downhill slide. Scientists are saying it’s time we start to pay more attention to dugongs, the original mermaids of the seas, before they’re all gone.

DUGONGS BELONG TO the scientific order Sirenia, which is named for the sirens of ancient Greek mythology, who tried to lure sailors onto their island with love songs. Sirenia comprises a tiny group of four living species that includes the three varieties of manatees and the dugong, as well as the Steller’s sea cow, which was hunted to extinction in the 1700s.

The dugong evolved separately from its cousins, developing a unique tail and a set of tusks, and it is a very picky eater, limiting its diet to specific sea grasses from the ocean bottom in warm, shallow coastal waters. A prehistoric freak of nature, the dugong is the world’s only plant-eating mammal specific to the ocean. It possesses a strange, bulbous snout; little eyes; and what looks like a peculiar smile. Its eyesight is poor, but its hearing is acute. It seems to communicate via odd little chirping sounds. And although dugongs can live to a maximum age of about 70, they reproduce very slowly and tend to swim alone except when feeding or nursing.

Dugong means “sea cow” in Tagalog, but the animal is not specific to the Philippines. Dugongs are found in small numbers throughout the tropics and subtropics, with the larger populations living near Australia and the land masses in the Arabian Gulf. In many areas, such as Mauritius, Madagascar, and the Maldives, the sea creature is already considered extinct.

“They’re bizarre,” admits Australian scientist Helene Marsh, PhD, professor of Tropical Environmental Studies & Geography at James Cook University, who has studied dugongs for 30 years and is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on them. “They’re a bit like a manatee … [or] they might be considered similar to a walrus. But, yes, they are very weird. Their closest terrestrial relative is the elephant. If you look at their internal anatomy, particularly the way their reproductive system works, they’re very similar.”