Dugong “Sea Cows” that inspired the mermaid myth have been declared extinct in China

Dugongs are now functionally extinct in China according to research led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), following no sightings of the sea’s beloved “manatee” grazers since 2008. Vulnerable to fishing, shipping strikes and habitat loss in the region, these gentle giants began to losing the battle against these threats quickly after the 1970s when their numbers plummeted.

The functional extinction of the dugong (Dugong dugon) in China is announced in a paper published to the Royal Society Open Science, where researchers conducted extensive interviews with fishermen across four southern maritime provinces in China. The aim was to gather evidence of dugong survival in the region through local people’s accounts of spotting them in the wild, but the results were disappointing and yielded no new sightings.

“Through interview surveys, we collected valuable information previously unavailable to make evidence-based evaluations of the status of dugongs in the region,” Heidi Ma, a postdoctoral fellow at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, said in a statement.

“This not only demonstrates the utility of ecological knowledge in understanding the status of species, but also helps us engage local communities and investigate possible drivers of wildlife decline and potential solutions for mitigation.”

Despite reaching out to 66 communities across four provinces stretching from Hainan, to Guangxi, Guangdong and Fujian, the researchers found no recent evidence of dugongs in the Chinese waters that were once their home. As such, they suggest that dugongs are now functionally extinct in the region and that their status should be reassessed as critically endangered (possibly extinct).

dugong extinct

As strict herbivores, dugongs are gentle giants. Image credit: Patrick Louisy

“The likely disappearance of the dugong in China is a devastating loss,” said co-author Professor Samuel Turvey. “Their absence will not only have a knock-on effect on ecosystem function, but also act as a wake-up call – a sobering reminder that extinction can occur before effective conservation actions are developed.”

Dugongs have certainly made an impact in history, not only as the lovable sea potatoes they are, but also in mythology.

As far back as Christopher Columbus, there have been reports of mermaids and sirens mythical humanoid creatures historically blamed for “luring” sailors into unsafe waters. However, it seems more likely that these sailors crushed pasty dugongs, manatees, or Steller’s manatees (also now extinct), as these animals may have seductively popped out of the water like mermaids while performing a “tailstand.”

While the news of their apparent extinction in China is a devastating blow, the authors behind the paper hope to be proven wrong. Their exhaustive research may not have yielded good news for the survival of the species, but they say they will “want all possible future evidence” that the dugong lives on in China.

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