Dugong "Sea Cows" That Inspired Mermaid Myth Have Been Declared Extinct In China

Exhaustive surveys revealed that nobody has seen a dugong in Chinese waters since 2008.


Rachael Funnell

Social Editor and Staff Writer

clockAug 24 2022, 15:08 UTC
dugong extinct
It seems, for now at least, that the dugong in China is no more. Image credit: Patrick Louisy

Dugongs are now functionally extinct in China according to research led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), following no sightings of the ocean’s beloved “sea cow” grazers since 2008. Vulnerable to fishing, ship-strike, and habitat loss in the region, these gentle giants reportedly began losing the battle against these threats rapidly 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, for which researchers carried out extensive interviews with fishers across four southern maritime provinces in China. The aim was to gather evidence for dugongs’ survival in the region through locals’ accounts of spotting them in the wild, but the results were disappointing and yielded no recent sightings.


“Through interview surveys, we gathered valuable information that was previously not available for making evidence-based evaluations of the status of dugongs in the region,” said Heidi Ma, Postdoctoral Researcher at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, in a statement.

“This not only demonstrates the usefulness of ecological knowledge for understanding species’ status, but also helps us engage local communities and to 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, researchers found no recent evidence of dugong throughout the Chinese waters which were once their home. As such, they suggest that dugongs are now functionally extinct in the region and so their status should be reassessed as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct).

dugong extinct
As strictly herbivorous animals, 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 serves as a wake-up call – a sobering reminder that extinctions can occur before effective conservation actions are developed.”

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

As far back as Christopher Columbus, reports have been made of mermaids and sirens mythical humanlike creatures that have historically been blamed for “luring” sailors into unsafe waters. However, it seems more likely that these sailors were crushing on doughy dugongs, manatees, or Steller’s sea cows (which are also now extinct) as these animals may have seductively popped out of the water mermaid-style while performing a “tail stand”.


While the news of their apparent extinction in China is a devastating blow, the authors behind the paper are hoping to be proven wrong. Their exhaustive surveys may have yielded no good news for the species’ survival, but they say they would “welcome any possible future evidence” that the dugong lives on in China.

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