Dugong Mystery: World’s Second Largest Group Discovered off Qatar

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The world’s second-largest population of dugongs, a marine mammal that mainly eats underwater grass, has recently been discovered in waters off the coast of Qatar. Also known as “sea cows”, these amazing animals can live for roughly 70 years and are 8 – 10 ft long; known to perform tail stands in the water, some people believe they inspired the ancient legends of mermaids and sirens, mistaken by sailors for human figures when seen from afar.

These gentle creatures have a very broad but fragmented geographical range, and are distributed across the warmer coastal waters in the Indo-Pacific region, stretching from East Africa to Australia – spanning about 48 countries, and roughly 140,000km of tropical and sub-tropical coastline. Although sometimes eating invertebrates like jellyfish, dugongs are almost exclusively herbivores and largely rely on seagrass communities for sustenance, meaning they are restricted to coastal habitats that support seagrass meadows. The largest populations are typically found in wide, shallow and protected areas – like bays, or mangrove channels.

Dugongs mostly live in small herds, sometimes as just a mother and calf pair or alone as individuals, but occasionally a phenomena of larger groups comprising of as many as a few hundred is recorded. For the past few years, researchers have been astounded to find hundreds of dugongs persistently aggregating in one or two great herds off the Qatari coast – a phenomenon very uncharacteristic of dugong behaviour and a world first, according to Christopher Marshall, Associate Professor of Marine Biology at Texas A&M University.

“Seasonally, hundreds of dugongs come together in one or two large herds just off the Qatari coast, and we don’t see this anywhere else in the world. It’s very un-dugonglike behaviour, and we don’t know why they’re doing it.”

Although herds of 500 and even 600 dugongs have allegedly been sighted in the past about half a century ago, large groups are now a very rare sight today. The global Dugong population trend is in decline, and the marine mammal is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCNs Red List. This newfound recurring herd in Qatar is an exciting discovery for researchers, and in February 2020 the herd size was estimated to be at least 500 dugongs!

The dugong remains a relatively elusive species, and one which we have limited existing data on; making it hard to understand behaviours such as this and to concretely determine how many there are, where they are, and where they are migrating to. Qatar’s recent phenomena has grabbed the attention of not only the research community but governing bodies, and funding has been granted for the next 3 years by Qatar National Research Fund to attempt to unravel the mystery of the country’s aggregating dugongs.

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