Are manatees and dugongs the same thing?

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Manatees and dugongs are sea mammals of the order Sirenia. The animals are both large, slow-moving herbivorous mammals commonly found in shallow water areas along warm coastlines. Generally, there are 4 living species of mammals in the order Sirenia. They include the Amazonian manatee, the West Indian manatee, the dugong and the West African manatee, though the extinct Stellar’s sea cow (massively hunted to extinction in the eighteenth century) also falls in this order.So what is the difference between the dugongs and manatees?

1. Habitat

Manatees are typically found in the marshy areas of the Amazonian basin (Amazonian manatee), Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean (West Indian manatee) and West Africa (the West African manatee). Since they cannot stand temperatures below 15 degrees Celsius, the manatees migrate often to avoid cold waters. On the other hand, dugongs spend their whole life in shallow, protected areas like mangrove swamps and bays. They are found around the coastlines of Africa and the Pacific, in places like Volanculos/Bazaruto in Mozambique, Marsa Alam in Egypt and the waters off northern Australia. Dugongs are the only Sirenians found only in saltwater and their only diet is sea grass.

2. Tails and Nails

Manatees and dugongs have an almost completely similar fusiform body structure, which is only different at the tail. Manatees have a very large, horizontal and paddle-shaped tail with just one lobe. The tail wags up and down when a manatee swims. The tail of a dugong has flukes with pointed projections, similar to a whale with a somewhat concave trailing edge. While the dugongs and Amazonian manatees do not have nails, the West African and West Indian manatees have basic nails on the forelimbs.

3. Mouth and Nostrils

The angle of a manatee’s mouth is less pronounced than that of a dugong. The dugong has short, broad and downward facing trunk-like snouts that are horseshoe-shaped with slit-like mouths and undivided upper lips. Due to their mouth structure, dugongs are bottom-dwelling. In contrast, manatees have divided upper lips and shorter snouts, which enable them to gather food and to feed on plants that grow on or near the water surface. In terms of nostrils, the nostrils of dugongs are located farther back on the head than those of manatees.

4. Teeth

Mature male dugongs usually have a pair of incisors shaped like tusks. Manatees do not have incisors. Instead, the manatees have molars which get replaced continuously. When the molars of a manatee move forward, often stimulated by the chewing motion, they gradually shift toward the front jaw and eventually fall out once in the front. As the molars shift to the front jaw, new molars appear at the back jaw to replace them. Typically, a manatee will not have more than 6 teeth in each jaw at any given time. But in dugongs, the molars in the back jaw are open-rooted and will continue to grow as they wear away.

Social Life and Offspring

Generally, manatees are solitary creatures that prefer to graze alone for long hours every day. A male manatee can have several female partners since the males usually compete to mate the females. Female manatees can give birth when 3 years old and then continue to do so after every 2-3 years, with the gestation period lasting 12 months each. On the other hand, dugongs are more solitary than the manatees, preferring to live in pairs and with only one mate. Female dugongs tend to give birth at the age of 10 years and then at intervals of 3-5 years after that.

Manatees and dugongs are very close cousins, which is why they have many similarities and few differences. They are incredibly wonderful creatures and a great sight to behold for nature lovers. So if you are planning to go on vacation and want to see one of the endangered species, then going to a place where you can see a manatee or a dugong can provide you with one of the most fulfilling trips.

At Captain Mike’s Swimming with the Manatees, we have been offering manatee tours to nature lovers for a long time. If you are planning a trip to see or swim with manatees at Crystal River, Florida, then working with us can bring all the glamour and joy you need in your trip. For more information, visit the “Captain Mike’s Swimming with the Manatees” site.


Swimming with the Manatees boasts the best water adventure in Crystal River, Florida with lots of things to do for you and your family. For more information, contact us online, or call us at (352) 571-1888.

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