An Australian Dugong
By Ana Queiros
In the course of the Inventory Project, a dugong was catalogued.
The register entry for this specimen reads:
“1890.105; Dugong (Halicore australis, Owen); Presented by the Imperial Institute; Queensland”
This specimen consists of a mounted piece of taxidermy and is used for exhibition purposes to educate and inspire visitors to the Museum.
Why is this specimen in the Museum?
This dugong is originally from Queensland, Australia and it has been in the Natural History Museum for over 120 years. It was donated by the Imperial Institute which was founded in London in 1887 as a result of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886. According to the official catalogue for this great exhibition, dugongs from the coast of Queensland were amongst the stuffed animals on display. There is a possibility that the specimen donated to the Museum was one of these animals.
Where can dugongs be found?
Dugongs are the only living herbivorous mammals that are strictly marine. They live in the tropical and subtropical waters of the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans, from East Africa to Vanuatu. Because of their vegetarian diet, they are limited to shallow coastal waters where seagrass beds occur. Their favourite plant foods are tape-grass and manatee-grass.
A species in decline
Dugong numbers have been declining and they are classified as “vulnerable to extinction” by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). They have been hunted throughout their range for use as food, oil, leather, traditional medicine and amulets as well as ornaments and jewellery. Moreover, they are often caught in nets and traps used in the fishing industry. Although there are laws banning the killing of dugongs, these are often not enforced.
Their habitats are also at risk due to seagrasses being very sensitive to disturbances from weather events such as cyclones and human activities such as trawling and dredging. Since dugongs only breed if they have a good supply of food it is increasingly important to minimise habitat loss and degradation by implementing conservation measures.
Dugongs and mermaids
Dugongs are often associated with mermaid myths. Some believe that they were the inspiration for the myths and that the sightings of mermaids by seamen were actually sightings of dugongs. This association prevailed in their scientific name which is currently accepted as: "Dugong dugon (Muller, 1776)". The name “dugong” comes from the Malayan “duyung” which means lady of the sea or mermaid. Another connection to similar mythical creatures – the sirens – is found on the name of the order Sirenia which also includes the closest living relatives of the dugong – the manatees. In Greek mythology sirens were dangerous female creatures who led sailors to shipwreck.
This particular specimen is on display on the first floor of the Natural History Museum. In the same display case there is a skull and a mounted skeleton of dugong as well as a West Indian manatee and a mounted skeleton of the Amazonian manatee. Also displayed in this case is a cast of skull and lower jaw of a Steller’s sea cow which were hunted to extinction in the 18th century.
You can read more about dugongs on the following:
Marsh, H., Penrose, H., Eros, C. and Hugues, J. 2002. Dugong Status Report and Action Plans for Countries and Territories. Report Series. Early Warning and Assessment, United Nations Environment Program UNEP/DEWA/RS.02-1