Call of the Siren

Manatee & Dugong Research, Education, & Conservation

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(c) Caryn Self-Sullivan, Ph.D. | Last updated 1 August 2009

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About This Page

My goal in creating this page is multi-fold.

First, although I have provided a basic introduction to the order Sirenia, I have refrained from duplicating the meticulous descriptions which are already available online (e.g. SeaWorld's Education Department Resource, Florida Power & Light Company's The West Indian Manatee in Florida, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's Dugong Information Kit). One word of caution, however... Scientists are rapidly uncovering new knowledge and many sources on the WEB have outdated or erroneous information. Please watch this site for new information as it becomes available online. In the meantime, this page is intended to fill in gaps to information available online, such as details on the saga of Steller's Sea Cow and to organize links to pages of interest to younger students and the general public (e.g. Visit Mermaids!, KIDS ONLY!, and You Can Help).

Second, I wanted a place to showcase my personal research on the Ecology and Behavior of Antillean Manatees in the Drowned Cayes Area of Belize, Central America. At present this information is not up-to-date as I am totally immersed in my dissertation. For an overview of the project, please visit my project site at EARTHWATCH.

Third, I have provided links to other Sirenia research around the world and to ONLINE documents and bibliographies of interest to manatee researchers. Browse the left and right columns of this page for hundreds of links!

And finally, in an effort to financially support these endeavors, I've provided links to books and other manatee merchandise. If you purchase any of the books through Sirenian International's Online Bookstore, will donate 5% - 15% of the purchase price to Sirenian International, our 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to the conservation of manatees and dugongs on a global scale.

(c) Douglas Faulkner - Link to Link to Satelitte Tracking in Belize Link to the Sirenia Project

The Order Sirenia

Manatees belong to the order Sirenia of which there are only 4 extant species in 2 families, Trichechidae and Dugongidae. The West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), the West African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis), and the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis) are members of the family Trichechidae. The dugong (Dugong dugon) is the only surviving member of the family Dugongidae (Reynolds and Odell 1991). Steller's sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) is also in the family Dugongidae (Reynolds and Odell 1991), but the species was extirpated by humans in 1768 just 27 years after it's discovery in the North Pacific (Stejneger 1887).

Click to purchase the SIRENIA POSTER

READ MORE ABOUT IT! To read more about the order Sirenia: manatees and dugongs, their life histories, habitat use, distribution and abundance, I recommend the following references:

Reep, Roger L., and Robert K. Bonde. 2006
The Florida Manatee Biology and Conservation. University Press of Florida. Hardcover 190 pp.
Powell, James A. 2003.
Manatees: Natural History & Conservation. World Life Library, Voyageur Press. Softcover 72 pp.
Ripple, Jeff, and Doug Perrine.
Manatees & Dugongs of the World. Voyageur Press. Softcover 144 pp.
Reynolds, John E., and Daniel K. Odell. 1991
Manatees and Dugongs. New York: Facts on File. Hardcover 192 pp.
Hartman, Daniel S. 1979.
Ecology and Behavior of the Manatee (Trichechus manatus) in Florida. Special Publication No. 5. The American Society of Mammalogists. Hardcover 153 pp.
Steller's Sea Cow
Hydrodamalis gigas, formerly classified as Rytina gigas, was first seen by modern humans when Captain Vitus Bering and his comrades discovered an uninhabited island (later named Bering Island) in 1741. Bering and his two ships, St. Peter and St. Paul, were on their way home to Kamchatka following an expedition to map the coast of Alaska for Tsar Peter I the Great of Russia. The ships were separated during a storm and Captain Bering, the St. Peter, and her crew were stranded on the island. Although Bering died on the island during the winter of 1741, Georg Wilhelm Steller (a German-born naturalist), and about half of the ship's crew survived. Steller described a giant sea cow and its habits, but was vague in his accounts of abundance and distribution. He said he found it numerous and in herds, leaving future researchers to guess at exactly how many. Stejneger (1887) estimated the number at less than 1500 and hypothesized that they were the last survivors of a once more numerous and widely distributed species which had been spared because man had not yet reached their last resort.

Upon the survivors' return to Kamchatka in 1742, new hunting expeditions were formed almost every year. They returned to Bering Island where they spent 8-9 months hunting fur-animals and eating sea cow meat to survive. Indeed, many of the expeditions are reported to have wintered on Bering Island for the express purpose of collecting sea cow meat for the remainder of their 3-4 year journey to the Aleutian Islands and America. The last sea cow was reported killed in 1768, just 27 years after the island had been discovered by modern man.

Steller's sea cow

a sketch of Steller's sea cow from the journal of Sven Waxell,
"Kamchatka Expedition 1741-1742"
source: The American Expedition by Sven Waxell 1952
(other sketches)
From Steller's description, these huge herbivores are believed to have numbered around 1500-2000 in the Bering Island and Copper Island areas of the North Pacific (circa 1741). The largest animals were 4-5 fathoms long (1 fathom = 6 feet), 3.5 fathoms thick around, and weighed 200 puds or 80 short hundredweight (up to about 8,000 pounds). They had no teeth, but two flat white bones, the one above fixed to the palate, and the one below on the inside of the lower jaw. Both were furrowed and had raised ridges with which they masticated kelp. The sea cows were found in herds close to shore. They drifted just below the surface of the water, a single animal resembled an overturned boat. Steller and Waxell both noted large midsections and very small heads. To see a photograph of the skeleton of a Steller's sea cow in the Helsinki Museum, go to Ari Lampinen, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland. The text is in Finnish, but the photo is worth the trip!

Link to The Dugong Page This overlay image created by Hans Rothauscher, author of The Dugong Page, demonstrates the extremely small skull of Steller's sea cow (grey) in comparison with the modern dugong (red). NOTE: The images represent proportions, NOT relative size; Steller's sea cow was at least twice as large as the modern dugong.

The ancestor to Steller's Sea Cow was possibly an extinct Dugongidae sea cow, Dusisiren jordani, previously named Metaxytherium jordani. Dusisiren was common in the shallow coastal waters of late Miocene California 10-12 million years ago. Sirenian evolution is not fully understood, but scientists believe the order originated near Africa in the middle Eocene, 45-50 MYBP (Perry 1995; also see Domning, D. P., 1978, Sirenian Evolution in the North Pacific Ocean, University of California Press). Click to learn more about the Eocene and Geological Time.

READ MORE ABOUT IT! To read more about the Kamchatka Expedition and the discovery and extirpation of Steller's sea cow, I recommend the following references:

Stejneger, Leonhard. 1887.
How the great northern sea-cow (Rytina) became exterminated. The American Naturalist 21(12):1047-1054.
Steller, Georg Wilhelm. 1988.
Journal of a Voyage with Bering 1741-1742. Stanford University Press. Stanford, California. 252 pp.
Waxell, Sven. 1952.
The American Expedition. William Hodge and Company, Limited. London. 236 pp.

Meet Kevin Andrewin, who helped me record manatees in Southern Lagoon, Gales Point Manatee, Belize.

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