An illustration showing a group of dugongs swimming under the sea
Families and children

Seagrass Tales, Dugong Trails

Past Exhibition

The National Museum of Qatar, in collaboration with ExxonMobil Research Qatar, presents a special exhibition on dugongs. These shy marine mammals have inhabited the waters surrounding Qatar's peninsula for more than 7,500 years.

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The Arabian Gulf is home to the world's second-largest population of dugongs, after Australia. Recently, the largest herds in the world, comprising between 600 to 700 dugongs, have been recorded in Qatar.

In recognition of their special cultural and environmental significance, the dugong was chosen by the National Museum of Qatar to be its official mascot.

What Is a Dugong?

Dugongs are large mammals that live in seawater and feed on seagrass. They have grey skin, paddle-like flippers, and a horizontal tail called a fluke. These anatomical features help them navigate their environment. Dugongs can reach over three metres in length and more than 550kg in weight.

These features set them apart from other animal relatives. Dugongs are classified as Sirenians and they are the last living species in the family Dugongidae.

The dugong’s name probably comes from one of the languages of the central Philippines. In Arabic, dugongs are called baqarat albahr, which translates to 'sea cow'.

NMoQ: Seagrass Tales, Dugong Trails

An underwater shot of a dugong showing its thick skin, large body and small fins

Dugongs are the only completely marine mammal that has a diet consisting solely of sea grass.

The Dugongs' Anatomy

As large sea living mammals, dugongs have distinct anatomical features that enable them to thrive in the water. Explore the slideshow below to find out more.

An Illustration showing a dugong's face

Snout: Dugongs' broad muzzle and mouth are filled with bristly whiskers, angled down to help them reach for food. They have a great sense of touch using their snout and whiskers. Their bristles detect plants on the sea floor, and the snout helps them pull them out.

An illustration of a male dugong with his tusks on display

Tusks: Adult male dugongs will develop tusks that can reach up to 25cm.

An illustration showing a dugong's black eyes and small ears

Eyes and Ears: Dugongs do not have good eyesight. Their eyes are small, and they do not rely on this sense to navigate their environment. They do have a sharp sense of hearing with their ears located on the sides of their head.

An illustration showing a dugong's face with two nostrils located on its snout

Nostrils: Dugongs are mammals and breathe oxygen from above the surface of the water through their nostrils. They can hold their breath for up to 11 minutes and dive up to 33 metres to feed. Like other marine mammals, their sense of smell is not very well developed.

An illustration showing the dugong's thick grey skin

Skin: Their skin is thick and smooth with hairlike whiskers. The colour of their skin evolves over time; pale grey for calves and darker deep grey covered with algae for adults. Through their hair around their body, they feel their surroundings to navigate, find each other, and locate food.

An illustration showing a dugong swimming using its two flippers and tail

Flippers: Paddle-shaped flippers help dugongs swim, slow down and turn. Mother dugongs feed their calves from their armpits, which are located underneath their flippers.

An Illustration showing a dugong's large flat tail

Tail: Their fluked tail resembles that of dolphins. The flukes move up and down to push dugongs forward. The fore-flippers help them to manoeuvre, turn, slow down and push off the sea floor.

Dugongs in Qatar: Then and Now

Palaeontologists have discovered dugong fossils in Qatar. These fossils confirm that dugongs have lived here for millions of years. Today, dugongs live around Qatar. In the winter they can be found in two hot spots: in the southeast between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, and in the northwest between Qatar and Bahrain.

Dugongs can migrate long distances – even from one country to another!

They can be found alone or in pairs (a mother and a calf), but have been spotted in larger herds in north-west Qatar. Around this area, scientists have recorded the largest groups of dugongs (more than 600) swimming in the sea. Scientists from Qatar University, Texas A&M University at Galveston, and EMRQ (funded by the Qatar National Research Fund) are currently studying this unusual phenomenon.

An illustrated group of dugongs swimming including mothers with calves

A group of dugongs is referred to as a herd, or in some cases a nutcluster

Observing Dugongs' Behaviour

Like many other animals, dugongs have their own unique habits and behaviours. Dugongs live a semi-nomadic life: as calves with their mother and as grown-ups alone. Throughout their lives, they spend their time eating seagrass.

Scientists study their behaviour through observation. Still, we have limited information, as they can be very shy.

Raising Calves

Dugongs and their calves share an intimate bond. Mothers usually give birth to one calf every three to six years. Calves grow up with their mother until they are about two years old, when they are mature enough to be on their own.

Mothers and calves communicate through touch. They touch each other’s flippers or rub their noses for reassurance. Calves climb on their mother’s back or swim underneath her for protection.

Eating Day and Night

Eating is the dugongs’ main activity! Dugongs eat seagrass found in shallow, clear, warm waters. Once they reach for their food, they use their muscular snouts and bristles to dig up the roots and pull the seagrass from the sea floor.

The fact that dugongs feed on seagrass is part of the seagrass meadow’s lifecycle.

In the short run, intense eating allows the seagrass to grow, which creates new habitat and nurseries for other inhabitants. In the long run, stirring up the sand and removing plants recycles nutrients and lets energy flow. This helps meadows develop and host more fish.

Dugongs eat around 40kg of seagrass per day.

How much food is 40kg? That's around 800 eggs or 180 burgers in weight! Although these numbers are mind-blowing, remember, seagrass is not as nutritious as our food. Dugongs have to eat this much to sustain themselves.

However, they prefer seagrass, which is more nutritious and is easy to digest. This means that they give priority to quality and not to quantity.

The Dugongs’ Habitat

Seagrass Meadow

The seagrass habitat is the dugong’s only source of nutrition and home to many different species of marine life. Seagrass meadows and their inhabitants support a life cycle that maintains biodiversity. However, fishing nets, boats and pollution disturb the balance of the ecosystem and threaten the dugong with extinction.

Seagrass grows on the seabed, forming underwater meadows. These habitats play a vital role in supporting the Arabian Gulf’s ecosystems. They are a nursery and a shelter for species such as young fish, shrimps, and oysters. They are also an important source of food for many sea creatures, such as green sea turtles. In the Arabian Gulf, only three species of seagrass can be found due to high salt levels and extreme temperatures.

A healthy underwater seagrass meadow

Seagrass growing in ideal conditions

A close view of seagrass with white salt damage to the vegetation

Damaged seagrass as a result of too much salt in the water

Aquatic Plants, Microorganisms and Fish

  • Green Sea Turtle
    Though it spends its lifetime in different habitats, the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) migrates to seagrass meadows for food: fish and jellyfish for the young, and seagrass for the adults. This turtle species is threatened globally.
  • Snapping Shrimp
    The snapping shrimp (Alpheus djeddensis) lives in the seagrass meadows. It has asymmetrical claws that can produce a loud sound and is considered one of the loudest animals in the ocean.
  • Arabian Carpetshark
    The Arabian carpetshark (Chiloscyllium arabicum) can be found in coastal waters. It feeds on fish and shrimps. This small shark is no threat to humans but is considered nearly threatened to extinction.
  • Goatfish
    Named goatfish because of its barbels on its chin, the goatfish (Upeneus oligospilus) is found in shallow waters. This fish eats shrimps, worms and crustaceans.
  • Blue Swimming Crab
    The blue swimming crab (Portunus segnis) lives in sandy and muddy areas of the seagrass beds. If it senses danger, it hides in the sand or swims away very fast. This crab feeds mostly on other animals found in its habitat.
An illustration of a goatfish with orange markings on its body and fins

An illustration of a goatfish

Saving Dugongs' Habitat

Plastic Pollution and Recycling

Plastic is in great demand around the world. Because the material is durable, easy to shape, and inexpensive to produce, it is used in a great variety and number of products. But its popularity and durability have led to an increase in plastic pollution in the environment.

Recycling can help reduce pollution. Recycled plastic can be repurposed into new products such as clothes and shoes, building materials, furniture, toys and different kinds of equipment. It can even be used to make new bottles that can be recycled once again.

Recycling, however, can take time and energy, and at times it’s not even possible. What’s more, the same plastic can be recycled only two or three times. This is why recycling is only one part of the solution; reducing the use of plastic is another.

In Qatar, there are a few companies that offer recycling solutions.

How Can I Help?

Saving the environment is an enormous challenge, but also very easy. We just need to change some of our habits.

Plastic is the number one threat for underwater habitats. It does not decompose, it is toxic for the water, and a danger to animals. Scientists warn that if we do not change our lifestyle by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

In the north of Qatar, where dugongs have been spotted, plastic bottles and packages get washed up on the shore every day. It is in our hands to protect the sea and dugongs by simply following some of the tips offered here.

  • Avoid Single-Use Plastic Products
    Invest in reusable water bottles and straws that you can wash and use again and again.
  • Recycle
    If you have to use single-use products, recycle them afterwards.
  • Eat Seafood Sustainably
    Protect the sea life by eating local fish and asking how your fish is caught and farmed.
  • Save Water
    You do not need to leave the tap running. Be mindful of the water you use!
  • Dispose of Waste Thoughtfully
    Do not throw your waste in the sea. Use the recycle bins when possible.

Enjoy this collection of stories and anecdotes about Dugongs from visitors, recorded on site at the National Museum of Qatar between 10 June and 1 September 2021.

Dugongs Oral Histories