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Dugong vs. Manatee

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

While dugongs and manatees are closely related, in many ways there are a number of differences between the species. In this lesson, you'll explore some of those differences.

Order Sirenia

What does a manatee look like? When describing them, you might say they are gray in color with two flippers and a tail. They are sort of oval-shaped and not exactly built for speed. All of these attributes could also be applied to dugongs. In fact, these species are incredibly similar. They are cousins, in a way, because they are both members of the scientific order Sirenia. There are only four members of this order: the three manatee species and dugongs.

Even the behavior of manatees and dugongs is similar. They are calm and slow-moving, spending much of their day floating around and eating sea grass. However, there are a few key differences that can help you differentiate between these animals.

Taxonomy

Taxonomy is the scientific classification of animals. Dugongs and manatees belong to the same order, but their family and genus are different. Their species are also different, but there are three separate species of manatee, so in telling manatees apart from dugongs, you only need to go as far as genus.

Manatees belong to the family Trichechidae and the genus Trichechus. All three species of manatee belong in these categories. By contrast, dugongs belong to the family Dugongidae and the genus Dugong. They are, in fact, the only living members of these categories.

Physical Differences

Of course, you can't see taxonomy when you are trying to tell two different animals apart. Manatees and dugongs do have a few physical differences. The most obvious is their tail. Dugongs have a fluked tail, meaning it is made up of two separate lobes joined together in the middle. This is the type of tail whales have. Manatees have a single-lobed, rounded tail.

Tail shape is the most striking difference between manatees and dugongs
Manatee and dugong tails

Another difference is that dugongs have overgrown incisors set at the front of the mouth and used for cutting. These resemble small tusks. They are really only obvious on adult male dugongs, and they are not present in manatees at all.

One other physical difference is size. Manatees tend to be larger than dugongs, with large dugongs reaching about the same size as small manatees. This range is about 6-8 feet long and 500 pounds. Manatees can be larger than this, but dugongs typically are a little smaller.

Mating and Reproduction

Dugongs and manatees are both mammals, which means they give birth to live young and nurse them. However, female manatees reach breeding age at around three years old, while dugongs do not breed until they are about six. For males of both species, it can be much later, up to 12 years old for dugongs and 10 years old for manatees.

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