Mammalian relative that inspired stories of mermaids that disappeared in China

Dugong swims with its nose touching a school of yellow fish

A mammal related to the mayati – said to have inspired ancient stories of mermaids and sirens – has gone extinct in China, researchers have declared.

Only three people surveyed from coastal communities in China reported seeing the dugong in the past five years.

Known as the gentlest giant of the ocean, the dugong’s slow, relaxed demeanor likely made it vulnerable to overfishing and shipping accidents.

It still exists elsewhere in the world, but faces similar threats.

Professor Samuel Turvey, from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), who co-authored the research study, said: “The potential extinction of the dugong in China is a devastating loss.”

Scientists from ZSL and the Chinese Academy of Sciences reviewed all historical data on where dugogs had previously been found in China.

They found that there had been no verified sightings by scientists since 2000.

In addition, the researchers turned to citizen science to interview 788 community members living in those coastal areas that were identified, to determine when locals had last seen one.

On average, residents reported not seeing a pit for 23 years. Only three people had seen one in the last five years.

This has led researchers to declare the dugong functionally extinct – meaning it is “no longer viable… to maintain,” Heidi Ma, a postdoctoral researcher at ZSL, told the BBC.

The dugong is a unique character of the sea. Weighing almost half a ton, it is the only vegetarian marine mammal.

Similar in appearance and behavior to the manatee, but distinguished by its whale-like tail, its gentle – seemingly benign – disposition has led some to believe it inspired ancient sea tales of mermaids.

Dugong feeds on the bottom of the sea

Dugongs use sensitive hairs on the tip of their snouts to feed on sea grass

Unfortunately, its habitat near the coast in China left it vulnerable to hunters in the 20th century who sought the animal for its skin, bones and meat.

After a remarkable population decline, dugongs were classified as a grade 1 national protected animal by the State Council of China in 1988.

However, researchers believe the ongoing destruction of its habitat – including a lack of sea grass for food – has caused a “rapid population collapse”.

The UN Environment Program estimates that 7% of seagrass habitats are lost globally each year due to industrial and agricultural pollution, coastal development, unregulated fishing and climate change.

Professor Turvey said its disappearance in China should act as a warning to other areas that host dugongs – including Australia and East Africa – calling it “a sobering reminder that extinctions can occur before effective conservation actions are developed”.

The species is found in 37 other tropical regions of the world – particularly in the shallow coastal waters of the Indian and western Pacific Oceans – but is classified as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. kind.

Countries are currently meeting in New York to sign a new UN marine treaty, which will put 30% of the world’s oceans in protected areas.

Kristina Gjerde, high seas policy advisor for the IUCN, told the BBC: “The dugong is a sad example of what is happening in the marine environment where there is increasing human encroachment.”

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