Nature Nugget – Sea Cows

The Sirenians, also called sea cows, are relatives of the elephants, and are the only totally aquatic herbivorous mammals. Like the elephants, they are long lived with some species living up to 60 years. They inhabit the shallow waters of rivers, estuaries, coastal marine waters, swamps, and marine wetlands. Except for one species, they all require warm water environments. Lacking hind limbs, Sirenians have flippers for forelimbs, streamlined, almost hairless bodies, and long, strong tails. Sirenians also have large, fleshy snouts which they use to grab vegetation while feeding. The Sirenians are represented by two families: the manatees and the dugongs.

The dugongs consist of two marine species: the dugong and the extinct Steller’s sea cow. The Steller’s sea cow was a giant, 60-foot-long, cold-water species that lived in the Bering Sea where it traveled in herds and fed on kelp. It was hunted to extinction for its meat and oil during the eighteenth century. The dugong is found over a large area of the tropical Indo-Pacific with its greatest population occurring in the northern waters of Australia. It has a fluked, dolphin-like tail which aids it in swimming in the strong ocean currents. The dugong grows to a length of around 9 feet and can weigh over 600 pounds. Their main diet is sea grasses which they graze off the ocean bottom.

The manatees, unlike the dugongs, have rounded, flat, paddle-shaped tails and are not restricted to marine environments. The manatees currently consist of four species: West African manatee, West Indian manatee, Amazonian Manatee, and the recently discovered dwarf manatee. The Amazonian and dwarf manatees are restricted to the freshwaters of the Amazon Basin of South America. The West African and West Indian manatees are found in both freshwater and marine environments.

The West Indian Manatee can reach lengths of over 13 feet and weigh up to 3,500 pounds, while the dwarf manatee only reaches a length of 4 feet. Manatees feed on a wide variety of aquatic plants including surface floaters such as water hyacinths. They have been known to even crawl part way out of the water to graze on shoreline vegetation. Their teeth are few in number and are known as “marching molars” because they are constantly replaced throughout their lifetime, a necessity due to the abrasive nature of the vegetation upon which they feed. Manatees, as well as their close relatives the dugongs, were frequently mistaken for mermaids and sirens by sailors who had been at sea too long.

Like the weary sailors who mistook the manatees and dugongs for mermaids, we Christians need to be on our guard against making mistakes and misjudging our brethren.

“Human minds and hearts, unless wholly sanctified, purified, and refined from partiality and prejudice, are liable to commit grave errors, to misjudge and deal unkindly and unjustly with souls that are the purchase of the blood of Christ.” The Home Missionary, February 1, 1892. “Jesus could make no mistake; but human judgment is erring, and may be wrong. Men may misjudge motives; they may be deceived by appearances, and when they think they are doing right to reprove wrong, they may go too far, censure too severely, and wound where they wished to heal; or they may exercise sympathy unwisely, and, in their ignorance, counteract reproof that is merited and timely.” The Signs of the Times, March 3, 1887. “Men may make mistakes; they may misjudge and misconceive. Their imaginations and impressions may be faulty. But the Lord never makes a blunder. You are to look to Jesus, who is the author and finisher of your faith.” Manuscript Releases, vol. 20, 75.

David Arbour writes from his home in De Queen, Arkansas. He may be contacted by e-mail at: