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Manatee Vs Dugong (Here’s the Difference)

Manatees and dugongs, both nicknamed sea cows, are members of the order Sirenia and are very similar creatures. They are both large, grey aquatic mammals that inhabit shallow coastal regions as well as tropical/subtropical regions. These two creatures are similar in size, shape, and color and can easily be mistaken for one another.

Despite being close cousins and sharing similar characteristics, manatees and dugongs are distinctly different animals. This article will detail the differences so you can easily tell the two mammals apart.

Manatee vs Dugong: 9 Differences

1. They aren’t in the same family

Manatees and dugongs may be of the same order, but they are not of the same family classification. Manatees are members of the Trichechide family, and dugongs are members of the Dugongidae family.

2. Manatees are larger

Manatee under the ocean
Manatee under the ocean | image by Koji Kamei via Pexels

Dugongs and manatees are similar in size, but the fact of the matter is that manatees can grow to be much larger than dugongs. Dugongs grow up to nine feet in length, while manatees can grow up to thirteen feet in length.

In addition to length, manatees can outweigh dugongs. The average dugong weighs up to eight hundred pounds, and the largest dugong on record was 2,240 pounds. On average, the dugong’s manatee cousin weighs around twelve hundred pounds, with the largest manatee species weighing up to three thousand pounds.

3. They live in different parts of the world

Dugong underwater
Dugong underwater | Photo by Chris F via Pexels

These two animals are found in different regions of the world. Dugongs are found throughout the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and the western Pacific Ocean. They can be found from East Africa to Australia and New Guinea.

Manatees are primarily found in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and part of the Amazon river basin. Manatees love warm, slow-moving waters like estuaries, rivers, coastal regions, and saltwater bays. They love areas with considerable seagrass growth. Some manatees can be found in Africa and West India.

4. Different snouts

Manatee with rounded snout
Manatee with rounded snout | Image by PublicDomainImages from Pixabay

One of the most significant differences between the dugong and the manatee is their snouts. Dugongs have long, narrow snouts with thick vibrissae, or mustaches, that grow on their upper lips and chins.

Manatees have rounded snouts with split lips. Both sides of their lips can move independently to help them grab and eat plants.

5. Their teeth are different

Manatee foraging underwater
Manatee foraging underwater | Photo by Jakub Pabis via Pexels

Dugongs and manatees have similar omnivorous diets, but they have different teeth. Manatees have flat teeth they use to grind plants.

Dugongs have two incisors that continue to grow throughout their lives, similar to the tusks of a walrus. The male dugong has much more prominent incisors, but the females also have them.

6. Dugongs don’t have nails on their flippers

Dugong snorkeling
Dugong snorkeling | Image by Hans Dietmann from Pixabay

From afar, the flippers of a dugong and a manatee may seem the same, but upon closer inspection, you will see a distinct difference. Dugongs do not have nails on their flippers, but most species of the manatee do. Most manatees have three or four nails on their flippers to help them grab plants, but the South American manatee does not have nails on its flippers.

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7. Different tails too

Manatee under the sea
Manatee under the sea | image by Yiftach T via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

Not only do these two creatures have different flippers, but they also have different tails. Manatees have fairly short tails compared to their bodies, usually about two to three feet.

The tail of a manatee is also paddle-shaped, unlike that of a dugong. Dugongs have dolphin-like, fluke-shaped tails that are longer than a manatee’s tail—a dugong’s tail measures between four and five feet.

8. Social vs solitary

Manatee underwater
Manatee underwater | Image by PublicDomainImages from Pixabay

While you may have seen groups of manatees together, they tend to be solitary creatures. They gather in areas where food is plentiful but do not typically travel together.

Conversely, dugongs are very social animals. They travel in groups called herds, which can total in the hundreds.

9. Mating habits

Manatee couple in shallow water
Manatee couple in shallow water | image by 35mmMan via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Sexual maturity is another significant difference between dugongs and manatees. Female manatees can mate as early as the age of three but typically start breeding at the age of five. Female dugongs take much longer to mature sexually.

A female dugong doesn’t become sexually mature until she is ten. Even still, she doesn’t usually mate until five years later, at the age of fifteen.

In addition to sexual maturity, these animals have different mating seasons. The mating season of manatees is between spring and summer each year, while the mating season of dugongs is in the fall.

What is a Manatee?

Manatee under the ocean
Manatee under the ocean | Image by PublicDomainImages from Pixabay

Manatees are large marine mammals with paddle-shaped tails. Though they look nothing like the mermaids of lore, it is believed manatees inspired mermaid legends. As herbivores, they spend their lives foraging for aquatic plants such as sea grass.

You might be surprised to learn that manatees are most closely related to elephants, sharing a common ancestor. Manatees do not have the necessary neck vertebrae to turn their heads like other mammals, so to look around, they must turn their entire bodies.

What is a Dugong?

Dugong underwater
Dugong underwater | Photo by Kris-Mikael Krister on Unsplash

Dugongs are plump marine mammals with fluke-shaped tails. They are found in the shallow waters of the Indian and western Pacific Oceans.

Dugongs are close cousins of the manatee but are members of a different family. In fact, dugongs are the only surviving members of the Dugongidae family. These herbivores graze on underwater grasses and plants.


While both manatees and dugongs are marine mammals that look very similar, they have significant differences. If you look closely, it should be easy to tell them apart from one another. From their snouts to their tails, manatees and dugongs have differences that give their identity away.

Though they are related, dugongs and manatees differ in many ways. Do you think you can tell the difference?