YOUNG WORLD

Cows in the sea

BALA THIAGARAJAN

Cows in the sea

The dugong, also called sea cow, is a large mammal related to the elephant. It is found in seas close to the shore. In India, they are found in the Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Mannar and the Andaman Islands.

A dugong has a sausage shaped body, 2.5 to 3.4 metres long, and weighs around half a ton. It has thick greyish brown wrinkled skin, small beady eyes and a horizontal notched tail. It has a pair of flippers for forelimbs but the hind limbs are absent. The upper lip is in the form of a horseshoe shaped muzzle, divided into two swollen pads, which bear stiff quill-like bristles.

In the females, between the two short flippers springing from the shoulders, rounded at the ends without any nails, are two tiny teats that are three centimetres long. The females are known to suckle their young while clasping it to their bosom with a flipper, like a woman cradling her child.

Dugongs are completely vegetarian feeding on sea grasses like zoster and thalassia. The plants are grasped between the pads of the muzzle and crushed between the plates in the jaws. A dugong has five pairs teeth each in the upper and lower jaws. The males have a pair of long, tusks (incisor teeth) pointing downwards. But these are absent in females.

Being a mammal, the dugong breathes air and has to come up to the surface every two to four minutes. The crescent-like nostrils are close to the muzzle but can be closed by hinged valves when the animal dives underwater.

A pair of dugongs mate for life and the single young is in the mother's womb for 13-14 months. The baby is about a metre long and weighs around 20 kg at birth.

The dugong is a shy animal. It flees at nearly 18-20 km an hour when threatened but soon tires. The male's tusks are not used against enemies. Dugongs can live up to 20 years but rarely reach this age. They are hunted for their skin, meat and fat. The last is used on boats for protection against wood-borers.