Mechanical disruption of seagrass in the digestive tract of the dugong


Janet M. Lanyon. Current address: School of Integrative Biology, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Qld 4072, Australia. Tel: (07) 3365 4416; Fax: (07) 3365 1655


The cheek teeth in dugongs are considered to be largely non-functional whereas the oral horny pads are important both in mechanical disruption of the diet and in conveying seagrass through the mouth. Particle size distributions of digesta from 41 dead stranded dugongs were examined to investigate the relationship between degree of food breakdown, gut region and functional surface area of the mouthparts. The in vitro ease of fracture of major dietary seagrass species were compared. The rate of food breakdown through the gut appears to be more closely linked to fibre level of the diet than to size or age of the dugong and its mouthparts. Low fibre seagrass, for example Halophila ovalis, breaks down at a faster rate than high fibre seagrass, for example Zostera capricorni both in dugong guts and in vitro. Several structural characteristics of seagrass, including level and arrangement of fibre, and water content, make it particularly amenable to mechanical breakdown. The soft mouthparts of the dugong are highly modified so that the entire oral cavity functions to crush low fibre seagrasses. Thus, the dugong has developed an efficient method of food ingestion and mastication that is suited to processing large quantities of soft seagrass during short dive times. The potential cost to the dugong in having lost its hard dental surfaces is that it has become restricted to a low fibre diet.