Manatee vs. Dugong – Are They The Same?

18. Manatee vs. Dugong
Read Time:9 Minute, 18 Second

Some people mistakenly believe that manatees and dugongs are the exact same species of animal that go by different names. Despite the similarities between manatees and dugongs, they are two different species with unique traits. Manatees and dugongs both belong to the Sirena taxonomic order. The word “siren” means mermaid in many languages, a nod to the animals’ history of being mistaken for mermaids. The dugong, Steller’s sea cow, three types of manatees (Amazonian, West African, and West Indian), and five distinct sirena species were all present at one time. Sadly, Steller’s sea cow was hunted to extinction in the 1700s.

Basic Facts About Manatees


The Amazon Basin, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and West Africa are home to manatees, which are found in shallow, marshy areas. Manatees can spend part of their lives entirely in freshwater, unlike dugongs who spend their entire lives in saltwater.

For manatees, the cold water can be stressful. Manatees migrate to warmer waters when the water temperature falls below 20°C/68°F, including natural springs and even power plant outflows.

Manatees weigh between 200 and 600 kg (440 to 1300 lbs) and grow to a length of 3.6 meters (11.8 feet) on average. These massive plants that are vegetarians eat algae, seagrass, mangroves, and other shallow-water plants like those found there. The largest sirena and a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, the Florida manatee can reach lengths of up to 4 meters (13 feet) and weights of 3500 pounds.

Manatees can swim up to 24 km/15 miles per hour for brief distances, but their average swimming speed is around 8 km/5 miles per hour. The average top swimming speed for a human is just under 6 km/3.7 mph, so manatees may appear to be slow and docile in comparison to other marine animals.

Manatees (and dugongs) need to surface to breathe, just like other marine mammals do. Manatees can submerge themselves for roughly 15 minutes while they are sleeping. The animal will surface every three to four minutes if it is active.

Basic Facts About Dugongs


In warm, shallow waters, dugongs can be found from East Africa to Australia. In comparison to manatees, they can live up to 70 years. The length and weight of a dugong on average are 2.4–3 meters/8–10 feet and 230–500 kg/510–1000 lbs.

One type of sea cow is the dugong. The family Dugongidae has only one surviving member. It’s a big animal without hind limbs or a dorsal fin. Manatees are its closest living relative. Like all sea cows, it has a very small brain compared to its body size.

Large animals, dugongs can reach lengths of up to nine feet. They are even capable of weighing up to one metric ton. The dorsal fin and limbs of the dugong are absent, as was already mentioned. It navigates the water by paddling with its forelimbs, or flippers. They frequently can be seen searching for seagrass to eat along the ocean floor with their snouts tipped downward. In order to indicate their success as a potential mate, dugong males develop tusks during the mating season if their testosterone levels are high enough.

Differences Between Dugongs And Manatees

Dugongs And Manatees: Size

The size difference between a dugong and a manatee is one of the most obvious differences. Manatees typically outgrow dugongs in length and weight, though some dugongs may occasionally grow larger. Although wild individuals can grow as long as 13.32 feet, the average dugong is about 9.8 feet long. They can weigh up to 2,240 pounds, although the average weight is between 551 and 1,984 pounds. Manatees, on the other hand, are typically 11 feet long but can grow to be 15.1 feet long. Manatees typically range in weight from 880 to 1,210 pounds, but extremely large ones can weigh up to 3,913 pounds. In both manatees and dugongs, females typically weigh more than males.

Dugongs And Manatees: Habitat

Manatees and dugongs are both members of the order Sirenia, but they are found on opposite sides of the globe. The Dugongidae family has just dugongs left, and their current range is much smaller than it once was. As of right now, they can be found in the Indo-West Pacific, from the East African coast to the waters off Northern Australia. They inhabit shallow, saltwater habitats close to coastlines throughout their range, including bays, harbors, and mangrove channels.

Manatees, on the other hand, are divided into three different species and are members of the Trichechidae family. These include the West African manatee, a native of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, the Amazonian manatee found in the Amazon Basin, and the West Indian manatee. Manatees, unlike dugongs, spend time in both freshwater and saltwater rivers as well as marshy coastal areas. For instance, West Indian manatees must spend the winter in warmer freshwater habitats because they cannot survive in waters below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Dugongs And Manatees: Teeth

Despite being both herbivores, manatees and dugongs have very different dental evolutions. When male dugongs reach puberty, they begin to grow two incisors, or tusks. Although females also develop tusks, these typically don’t appear until much later in life. Scientists can determine the age of a particular dugong based on the layers of growth in a tusk. Manatees don’t develop tusks, in contrast to dugongs. There is no clear distinction between molars and premolars; they only have gross cheek teeth. A manatee will replace its teeth several times throughout its life, with new teeth developing at the back of the mouth and old teeth being pushed out the front. This phenomenon is called “marching molars,” and is similar to how an elephant’s teeth grow.

Dugongs And Manatees: Tail

The shape of their tails is another distinguishing characteristic between dugongs and manatees. Dugongs have a fluked tail that resembles a dolphin’s tail and has deep notches and a trailing edge. They can twist their tail to help them change directions as well as flap it up and down to move forward. There is evidence to support the theory that dugongs occasionally stand on their tails while breaching their heads above the water to breathe. Manatee tails, on the other hand, resemble a beaver’s tail more and have a paddle-like shape. A manatee moves by flapping its tail up and down, just like a dugong.

Dugongs And Manatees: Snout

A manatee has prehensile, divided lips and a shorter snout than a dugong.

Among the most obvious differences between a dugong and a manatee are their respective snouts’ size and shape. Dugongs resemble elephants in that they have wide, trunk-like snouts. The trunk has a downward sloping tip and a narrow mouth at the end. This adaptation makes it easier for dugongs to graze on seagrasses that grow on the seafloor. Manatees have noticeably shorter snouts than dugongs, however. Manatees also acquired a divided, prehensile upper lip that aids in food gathering and inter-manatee communication.

Dugongs And Manatees: Skin

The skin of a dugong and a manatee has a few minor differences. Normally appearing light gray or cream at birth, dugongs have thick, smooth skin. They can develop darker colors as they get older, appearing brown or dark gray. This might be as a result of the layer of algae growth that slowly forms on their backs and tails over time. The texture of a manatee is different from that of a dugong, despite the fact that they also frequently grow algae and change color. The skin of a manatee is equally thick but much more wrinkly and rough than that of a dugong. Similar to a dugong, a manatee can feel its way around in its environment thanks to the coarse, short hair covering its skin.

Dugongs And Manatees: Nails

Manatees and dugongs both have flippers that they use to help them swim and move through the water. A dugong and a manatee can be distinguished from one another, though there is a slight variation in their flippers. Dugong flippers are unnailed, unlike manatee flippers. The three or four tiny nails that West Indian and African manatees grow at the tips of their flippers resemble an elephant’s toenails. They think that manatees once walked on land and that their toes are a holdover from that time. Manatees may now use the nails to hold onto the seafloor and pull up plants.

Dugongs And Manatees: Diet And Feeding

Although both dugongs and manatees are herbivores, there are some significant differences between their diets and feeding habits. Although squid and octopuses are occasionally consumed, seagrass is the main source of nutrition for dugongs. When feeding, they will consume the entire plant—including the roots—despite the fact that they seem to favor just the leaves. Additionally, they favor less densely vegetated areas over those with more seagrass to feed on. By doing this, you might be able to consume more seagrass, which is high in nutrients, as opposed to eating a lot of low-nutrient vegetation.

Manatees consume a variety of freshwater grasses in addition to seagrass, though they also consume seagrass. Additionally, evidence suggests that manatees occasionally consume small fish, which they typically take from nets. When feedings, manatees “walk” on their flippers, which they also use to dig up plants and roots. Then, they will push food in front of their mouths with their flippers so that they can take it with their lips.

Dugongs And Manatees: Mating And Reproduction

A dugong and a manatee differ from one another in terms of how they reproduce and mate. Dugongs typically mate for life and are monogamous, though they occasionally take on new partners if their first one dies. Between the ages of 6 and 17 is when female dugongs typically reach sexual maturity; the average age is around 10 years. Manatees live a polygamous lifestyle, with some males engaging in multiple sexual relationships concurrently. Female manatees also mature sexually earlier and can give birth to their first calf as early as age 3.

Both Dugongs And Manatees Are Threatened

Sadly, both dugongs and manatees are endangered by human activity. Due to their lengthy reproductive cycle, dugongs are particularly vulnerable. Only every three to five years do female dugongs reproduce, usually not until they are 10 years old. The first baby that a female manatee typically has is at the age of three, and subsequent children are born every two to three years after that.

Although manatees and dugongs are both protected, hunters who want their blubber and oil will easily take advantage of them. Additionally frequently struck by boats, the sluggish animals are also frequently caught in canals or fishing nets. The gentle sirenas are also at risk from the destruction of mangrove habitat.


Manatees and dugongs are both marine mammals, but despite sharing a striking resemblance in appearance, they differ significantly. They should be simple to distinguish from one another if you look closely. Manatees and dugongs can be distinguished from one another by the differences in their snouts, tails, and other body parts.

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