Dugong - Encyclopedia

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DUGONG, one of the two existing generic representatives of the Sirenia, or herbivorous aquatic mammals. Dugongs are distinguished from their cousins the manatis by the presence in the upper jaw of the male of a pair of large tusks, which in the female are arrested in their growth, and remain concealed. There are never more than five molar teeth on each side of either jaw, or twenty in all, and these are flat on the grinding surface. The flippers are unprovided with nails, and the tail is broad, and differs from that of the manati in being crescent-shaped instead of rounded. The bones are hard and firm, and take a polish equal to that of ivory. Dugongs frequent the shallow waters of the tropical seas, extending from the east coast of Africa north of the mouth of the Zambezi, along the shores of the Indian, Malayan and Australian seas, where they may be seen basking on the surface of the water, or browsing on submarine pastures of seaweed, for which the thick obtuse lips and truncated snout pre-eminently fit them. They are gregarious, feeding in large numbers in localities where they are not often disturbed. The female produces a single young one at a birth, and is remarkable for the great affection it shows for its offspring, so that when the young dugong is caught there is no difficulty in capturing the mother. Three species - the Indian dugong (Halicore dugong), the Red Sea dugong (H. tabernaculi) and the Australian dugong (H. australis) - are commonly recognized. The first is abundant along the shores of the Indian Ocean, and is captured in large numbers by the Malays, who esteem its flesh a great delicacy; the lean portions, especially of young specimens, are regarded by Europeans as excellent eating. It is generally taken by spearing, the main object of the hunter being to raise the tail out of the water, when the animal becomes perfectly powerless. It seldom attains a length of more than 8 or 10 ft. The Australian dugong is a larger species, attaining sometimes a length of 15 ft.; it occurs along the Australian coast from The Dugong.

Moreton Bay to Cape York, and is highly valued by the natives, who hunt it with spears, and gorge themselves with its flesh, when they are fortunate enough to secure a carcase. Of late years the oil obtained from the blubber of this species has been largely used in Australia as a substitute for cod-liver oil. It does not contain iodine, but is said to possess all the therapeutic qualities of cod-liver oil without its nauseous taste. A fullgrown dugong yields from io to 12 gallons of oil, and this forms in cold weather a thick mass, and requires to be melted before a fire previous to being used. The flesh of the Australian dugong is easy of digestion, the muscular fibre when fresh resembling beef, and when salted having the flavour of bacon. In the earliest Australian dugong-fishery natives were employed to harpoon these animals, which soon, however, became too wary to allow themselves to be approached near enough for this purpose, and the harpoon was abandoned for the net. The latter is spread at night, and in its meshes dugongs are caught in considerable numbers. (R. L.*)

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