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sirenian

Introduction

sirenian (sĪrēˈnēən) [key] or sea cow, name for a large aquatic mammal of the order Sirenia. Living sirenians are the dugong and the manatee, both found in warm, shallow waters in sheltered regions, where they feed on seaweeds and sea grasses. Sirenians are the only marine mammals, outside of the whale order, that spend their entire lives in the water, and they are the only marine mammals that feed exclusively on vegetation. Their heavy, thickset bodies are fishlike in form, the tail ending in a horizontally flattened fin. There are no hind legs, and the forelegs are modified into weak flippers. The gray skin is largely hairless, but there are short bristles (vibrissae) concentrated around the fleshy lips and distributed more sparsely on the body that aid the sense of touch; the upper lip is cleft into two lobes, used for gathering food. The female has a pair of mammary glands on the chest, and holds the pup in her flippers while nursing. It has been speculated that the manatees, which nurse on the water's surface, are the source of mermaid legends.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Vertebrate Zoology

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