What is a Dugong? - Definition, Habitat & Population

Instructor: Lauren Posey

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

Dugongs are a close relative of the manatee. In this lesson you will learn about their habitat, their population and conservation status, and a physical description.

Defining a Dugong

When you think of animals that are related to elephants, what comes to mind? What about a dugong, the Southeast Asian cousin of the manatee? This may not have been your first thought, but dugongs and manatees are actually very closely related to elephants!

Though they are related to elephants, dugongs (and manatees) are sometimes referred to as sea cows because they graze on sea grass. The scientific name for the dugong is Dugong dugon.


Physically, dugongs look very similar to manatees. They are mostly grey and shaped like long ovals, with a tail and two flippers. One difference between manatees and dugongs is the tail. Dugongs have a fluked tail or two-lobed tail with a notch where the lobes meet. This is more like a whale. Manatees have rounded tails.

Adult dugongs are typically eight to ten feet long. Their preferred food is sea grass, which grows on the ocean floor. Dugongs have rough, hairy faces. If you run your hand along the bottom of a broom, it probably feels very similar! After pulling up the grass, they grind it in their mouths, rather than chewing it, because they do not have any teeth. Dugongs are mammals like whales and dolphins, and so they breathe air.

Dugongs root around for sea grass


Dugongs are saltwater animals. They are rarely if ever, seen in freshwater areas. They live in warm, coastal waters and have a huge but fragmented range. That is, they are found off the coast of a large number of countries, but they aren't continuous throughout this area. Their range is made up of a series of large sections

Dugongs are most common off the coast of Australia. However, their range includes countries all the way up the East African coast, as well. They can be found on shorelines in the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Red Sea, as well as smaller areas like the Persian Gulf. If you see a dugong, you will probably only see one, or a pair. However, they do occasionally gather in large groups. These herds can have up to a hundred dugongs in a relatively small area.


Dugongs are classified as a vulnerable species. This means they are likely to become endangered, based on their current population status and threats that they face.

Though it is difficult to get a full population count because of their spread-out range, in the waters around Australia there are approximately 80,000 dugongs. This is the largest population of dugongs. The next largest population is in the Persian Gulf, where there are only around 7,000.

Since getting a full population count is difficult, this means it is also hard to tell how the population as a whole is doing. However, based on reports from individual populations, the number of dugongs seems to be decreasing.

There are a number of issues that threaten the dugong population. Climate change affects the coastal areas where they live, and they have also had to deal with habitat destruction. Coastal areas are also negatively affected by pollution, and this is an issue for the dugongs as well.

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