Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Vanishing Mermaid

For thousands of years, sailors reported ocean sightings of beautiful fishtailed women frolicking in the waves, singing sweet music, and luring men to a briny demise. Ideas about the creatures have been perpetuated through the centuries, in everything from Homer's Odyssey to Arabian Nights to a number of Disney films. These great storytellers have captivated audiences around the world with mermaid mythology. No scaly-tailed seductress actually exists, of course. Instead, historians believe that the ancient sailors were enthralled by a strange aquatic creature that, although 10 feet long and 800 pounds, apparently reminded them of a women.

Known as a dugong, the animal exists in isolated colonies scattered through the oceans. But it may not exist for long, considering that it's listed variously as endangered, rare, depleted, and extinct. It's one of the planets least understood creatures, and may always be if not saved.

Fossils date the dugong's origins back to 50 million years ago, but mankind's knowledge of the animal is practically zero. Aside from the locations dugongs have been sighted at, where they live remains a mystery, as well as the exact number of them that are left. Aerial surveys of dugong population show that their numbers are on a step downhill slide. Scientists are saying it's time we start to pay more attention to dugongs, the original mermaids of the seas, before they are all gone.

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