Science: The Original Mermaid

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The star attraction at California's Steinhart Aquarium last week was a sleek, 180-lb. female named Eugenie. A placid seaweed-eater that looks like the product of an accidental mating of a hippo and a walrus, Eugenie is a dugong, one of the fast-disappearing submarine elephants that range the warm oceans from the Red Sea to the South Pacific. Six feet long and probably three years old, she was caught by a native fisherman off the Palau Islands and flown to San Francisco by Stanford University Ichthyologist Dr. Robert Rees Harry. U.S. marine biologists believe that Eugenie is the only dugong in captivity anywhere in the world.

Song of the Siren. Dugongs are sea mammals mysteriously descended from some remote aquatic ancestor of the elephant. Like elephants, they have tusks; like whales, they must rise to the surface to gulp in lungfuls of air. The female dugong's nipples are conspicuous and set forward; when suckling her calf, the mother clasps it to her breast with a flipper that bends at the elbow. At such moments, the head and shoulders of the dugong rise from the water in a vaguely human attitude. Many ichthyologists believe that this—and the fishlike tail the dugong displays when diving—led Greek and Arab seamen to bring back tales of mermaids. The dugong also emits a low-pitched whistling sound as the air rushes in through its nostrils. This may account for Homer's persistent legend of sweet-voiced sirens who lured ancient Greek mariners to their deaths on rocky Scylla.

Modern scientists pay their respects to the classics by classifying dugongs in the order Sirenia. In a well-meaning gesture, Dr. Harry and his colleagues named Eugenie for the world's most comely ichthyologist: Dr. Eugenie (Lady with a Spear} Clark. Yet on closer inspection, the dugong is no pinup ,girl. Both male and female dugongs have sharp, coarse whiskers and give off what is delicately described as "a strong, distinct, aromatic dugong odor." Clams & Cucumbers. The dugong shows signs of becoming extinct. Hundreds were slaughtered in the 18705 after an Australian firm offered $9 a gallon for dugong oil; many more were killed and eaten in World War II, when-Japanese garrisons in the South Pacific convinced themselves that dugong meat tastes like prime ribs of beef. California's Eugenie was speared and taken off Babelthuap Island. Only three dugongs have been caught in the Palau group since 1947.

Eugenie's captor hauled his prize ashore, propped her up in a taxicab and trundled her through his village as a curiosity.

Next day Dr. Harry & Co., who were collecting marine specimens near by, raced to the village and bought Eugenie for $20. She was given a sulfa treatment for her spear wound and nursed back to health (on a diet of clams and cucumbers) in a local swimming pool. No available aircraft could carry a tankful of water big enough to enclose a sea-elephant, but since the taxi ride proved that Eugenie could live out of water, Dr. Harry decided to fly her home on an air mattress.

Forty-eight hours and three planes later, Eugenie landed at San Francisco, weeping copiously.

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