Dugong dugon is du-gone!
Our master of the marine mammals, the dugong, has been dragged out of the running for the 2022 Mammal of the Year crown – losing out by just 35 votes!
Now you’ve got just 22 hours to vote for your favourite in the Top 6, after which we’ll remove the lowest-rated mammal, clear the tallies and start again at the same time tomorrow. Get behind our mammals and give them a shoutout to your friends to get them into the next rounds.
So long, dugong
Name: Dugong (Dugong dugon)
Group: Marine Mammals.
Size: Length up to 3m, weight up to 570kg.
Diet: Seagrass community specialist.
Habitat: Coastal northern Australia from Shark Bay in Western Australia to Moreton Bay near Brisbane (all year), south to Port Stephens in NSW in summer.
Conservation status in Australia: Protected.
Superpower: Meet the only grass-munching mammal that spends all its life in the sea.
Why would a 400kg marine mammal with a face that only another dugong might love be considered as the origin of myths about mermaids and sirens? This link is usually attributed to the dugong’s pectoral mammary glands (which have been likened to human breasts) and long period of close calf dependency. But this link might be more about lust than likeness. There are stories about dugongs being used as surrogate females by fishermen at several places in their vast range, which extends through tropical and sub-tropical coastal and island waters from east Africa to Vanuatu.
But Australia is the dugong capital of the world. Our northern coastal waters support most of the world’s dugong population and are the most common marine mammals throughout most of this region. The Torres Strait region supports more dugongs than anywhere else.
Indigenous peoples have been hunting dugongs throughout their range for at least 4,000 years. The dugongs is a culturally significant species and features prominently in the art and stories of many coastal peoples, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples across northern Australia. The coverings of the biblical Tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant are believed to have been made from dugong skin.
The dugong is the only member of the family Dugongidae and one of only four extant sirenians (seacows) – the other three species are manatees. Despite being in separate families, manatees and dugongs look remarkably alike. The most obvious difference is in the shape of the tail: manatees have a round tail like a beaver’s, while the tail of a dugong resembles that of a whale or a dolphin. The build of a manatee is more robust than that of a dugong, which looks like a manatee that goes to the gym! Dugongs look like a cross between a walrus and a dolphin without a dorsal fin.
From a biological perspective, the dugong is quite different to other marine mammals. It is the only herbivorous mammal that spends all its life in the sea. Manatees and dugongs are more closely related to elephants and hyraxes than other marine mammals.
The diving achievements of dugongs are modest, mostly reflecting the distributions of the seagrass communities on which they feed. Although dugongs mostly eat seagrass, they also target invertebrates at the high latitude limits to their range in winter and have been described as “closet omnivores”.
Dugongs perceive their aquatic environments largely through touch, hydrodynamic reception and hearing; vision and taste are also likely important to some degree. They have sparse sensory hairs all over their bodies that function like the lateral lines of fishes.
Dugongs are long-lived and slow-breeding. The oldest wild dugong that has been aged was more than 70 years old when she died. Dugongs generally have one calf every few years from a minimum age of around seven years. However, they suspend breeding when seagrass is in short supply after cyclones, floods or marine heatwaves.
The conservation status of the dugong is variable. It is listed as vulnerable to extinction at a global scale by IUCN and as endangered, critically endangered, or extinct in several of its more than 40 range countries. Fortunately, the dugong does not qualify for listing as threatened in Australia at a national scale. Nonetheless, they are protected as migratory and marine species. However, there is concern about the population in some regions, particularly the urban cost of the Great Barrier Reef.
And the super 6 are:
Rakali or Australian water rat (Hydromys chrysogaster)
The wondrous water rat emerged victorious, and without tough competition from the rest of the Rollicking Rodents, carrying a healthy 32% of the votes across the finishing line.
Gilbert’s Potoroo (Potorous gilbertii)
This beautiful little fungus eater hopped to the top of the Marvellous Macropods and stayed there with a quarter of all the votes, pipping the Quokka at the post.
Southern bent-wing bat (Miniopterus orianae bassanii)
An incredible surge of last-minute voting in the Brilliant Bats category saw a surprising switcheroo; the southern bent-wing bat swooping ahead of the spectacled flying-fox and into the Top 10 with 36% of the votes.
Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus)
The platypus also got a whole lot of love – swimming its way into the Top 10 as the next highest voted mammal across all of the categories other than the category winners.
Mountain pygmy possum (Burramys parvus)
This alpine darling might be hibernating, but that didn’t stop its ascent to the top of the Hello Possums category and into the running for Mammal of the Year.
Dingo (Canis dingo or Canis familiaris)
Australia’s charismatic but controversial native dog took out the top spot in the Rock Stars category in a landslide with a whopping 35% of the vote!
Think hard about your choice because you can only vote once per round!
How does voting work?
“But how does voting work?” you may ask. Don’t worry, it’s super simple.
Voting has now opened for the Top 6 (from 12:00pm AEST Friday 19 August) and will be open for 22 hours – closing tomorrow, Saturday 20 August, at 10:00am AEST.
Then, at 12:00pm AEST we’ll announce the mammal that has received the least votes and has been booted out of the running.
We’ll set the tally back to zero and open up voting for the Top 5 anew.
Each day we’ll whittle away at the list of our most marvellous mammals until the last two left standing are announced on Tuesday 23 August.
With voting open for two days, we’ll finally put the debate to rest (for this year at least) and crown Australia’s Mammal of the Year on Thursday 25 August!
Vote for your pick in the Top 6 here:
Imma Perfetto is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Science with Honours in Science Communication from the University of Adelaide.
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