Manatees and Dugongs The Real Mermaids

About manatees and dugongs two sea creatures that are probably the origins for the mermaid legends, description of the animals.

THOMAS R. HENRY'S 10 BEST ODDITIES

Meet a Real Mermaid. "The prototypes of the mermaids of legend are among the least known of all animals to naturalists because of their underwater habitat and their secretive habits. They are the manatees of the Caribbean region and the dugongs of the Indian Ocean. They constitute the only remaining species of the serenia, or moon creatures, distant relatives of the elephant. Both have a somewhat human facial appearance. They feed standing upright in the water, their flippers held out before them like arms. Sometimes the females hold their calves in these flippers. Seen from a distance, they have a curiously human appearance, which may account for the many reports of mermaids and mermen.

"This is especially true of the dugong--a creature of the open sea, with a white, almost hairless body. It is extremely secretive and has almost never been captured alive. When one is washed ashore or caught in a fisher's net it causes superstitious fear among the natives. The manatees are not so human in appearance and are much better known.

"The creatures seldom make their appearance above water in daylight. They prefer to graze in the moonlight, and this has added to their humanlike appearance which has given rise to the mermaid legends.

"One of the few persons to study the animal at close range, O. W. Barrett, an American explorer, tells us the following concerning the manatee:

"'The animal still is fairly common in most freshwater bayous, lagoons, and rivers along the east coast of Nicaragua. . .

"'Families consisting of a bull, a cow, and one or 2 calves usually . . . merge into a herd of from 10 to 50 or more individuals living in a certain stretch of river, concentrating during the day and scattering at night. They generally graze at night, although a few individuals may be seen feeding in broad daylight. The body is held nearly vertical while grazing. The head is held well out of water, while the armlike flippers poke the grass toward the mouth. The noise made by the flapping of the huge upper lip and the crunching of the large teeth can be heard distinctly 200 yards or more away. The sound is much like that of horses grazing in a pasture. Adult manatees appear to average somewhere between 9' and 10' in length. Some--old females, presumably--may reach 12'.

"A much more seclusive animal is the true mermaid of legend--the dugong of the open ocean. Unlike the manatee, it is a creature of the sea and seldom ventures into the fresh-water rivers and lagoons. Few naturalists ever have actually seen one of the creatures. Mrs. Barrett's 1st acquaintance with the creature came in Mozambique, when some native fishermen caught in their net what they described as a 'white porpoise.' They were terrified and gladly presented their catch to an Italian blacksmith. This man crudely embalmed the animal, placed it in a rough coffin and freighted it to Johannesburg, where he rented a showroom and made a fortune exhibiting 'the only genuine mermaid--half fish, half human'."

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