Life Cycle of a Sea Pig
The Sea Pig, or Snootegious Antebellum is a member of the mammal family of creatures. Jacques Cousteau wrote a treatise on their development, entitled "The Sea Pig: Why they do what they do" in 1974, on which this summary relies heavily.
A sea pig is born generally in a group of 10 eggs laid by a female sea pig, or "hen". This sack of eggs gestates approximately 366 days, and after laying hatch within about a week. A typical sea pig weighs approximately 152kg at hatching, with a grown male sea pig "bear" weighing up to a metric ton. Sea pig chicks, as the young are called, are ferocious eaters of shrimp and their effluent, as well as kelp or sea weed. This grows only in the darkest areas of the sea floor, except near beaches and shallow ocean water where pollutants have fertilized the water for them. As a result Hawaii, as any traveler knows, is nearly choked with kelp in the summer. Another instance of the shameful corporations and US government machine ignoring the environment. Sea pig chicks spend an average of 10 to 20 years with the sea pig pack, growing and becoming a part of the sea pig community. Sea pigs are known to have a very communal, village-like atmosphere to their packs, sea pig chicks rely heavily on adults for food, entertainment, and education. This excerpt is from Cousteau's novel:
"the sea pig chick will remain by its parents side closely until late in development. They are loving, caring, romantic creatures, I have seen them together at the Paris zoo cuddling and flapping each other with fins. Danger often forces the pack closer together, and the death of even one chick to a predator such as a killer whale or steamboat will cause them great anguish. A couple of sea pigs at the Paris zoo, whose chick was tragically lost to a poacher, caused the parents a deep depression, they became dirty and filthy, rarely bathing, and sleeping in their own sick. Luckily, the other 9 survived. During development, a sea pig chick learns the ways of the pack, the sea pig, how to act around other sea pigs, and how to obtain food: in essence, how to be an adult. In the real world, human children would be going out to college or getting a job, while these sea pig chicks just swim around. Some chicks just swim around, teasing the other sea pigs, they are young and carefree, smooth and untouchable. This is what chicks do."
As a chick grows up, it becomes larger and larger, and considered a member of the sea pig community. It gains responsibilities and rights, much like a human child. Sea pig packs are very close-knit and exhibit a fascinating amount of solidarity. Entire packs have been decimated with a few deaths, as the other sea pigs go into a clear agony, a depression. Surviving members usually join other packs.
Sea pig adolescence is often about finding a mate. Sea pigs tend to pair for life for mating, like humans, ducks, and wildebeests. If a hen's bear dies, she may often become the 'mistress' of a bigger, wealthier bear and stay with him. This is met with acceptance from an existing bear's mate, after all, it takes a village to raise a sea pig. Some alpha males have been known to have upwards of 7 hens, one for each night of the week. After successfully finding a mate, a sea pig reaches mating age at around 20 or so, unless it feels ready earlier. A sea pig hen will generally lay between 50 and 100 sacks of eggs in her lifetime, with a 78% conception rate and 22% survival rate from laying to adulthood. The sea pig then spends its life roaming with its pack in the Pacific Northwest, an area approximately 15 million square miles. This is the traditional area of the sea pig, although they have been found as far north as the north pole, and as far south as the south pole.
Barring tragedy, a sea pig will live about 72 years for males and 78 for females. Why is this? Nobody knows. Cousteau's famous Paris sea pigs lived to be 89 and 98, respectively.
"Because they are mammals, they must breathe oxygen. They rise to the surface about every 10 to 15 minutes to breathe. These gentle giants eat only grasses and plants. Their only teeth are big grinding molars in the backs of their mouths. When these molars wear down, the sea pig grows new ones.
Sea pigs do not harm other animals. Being so big, you might think they would have a loud roar. But sea pigs make little squeaking and whistling sounds!
Lately the sea pig has been having some problems. Cold temperatures have caused sea pigs to die. Sometimes they get caught in fishing lines and nets. They can't come up for air. This causes them to drown. But people cause most of the sea pigs' problems. Sea Pigs usually swim just under the surface of the water. People driving boats often don't see the them. They drive too fast and run over them. New laws say that boaters now must drive very slowly through their waters. It's up to people to help save the sea pigs."
Cousteau remarked that they are the most gentle of sea creatures. A sea pig then dies and the wonderful cycle of nature repeats.
Perhaps the most awesome sights to be seen in Florida waters are the sea pigs. Christopher Columbus, when he first saw them in the New World in 1493, attested to the sea pig's lack of beauty, noting that these "'mermaids' were not quite so handsome as they had been painted." What a sea pig lacks in beauty, however, is made up for by its size and graceful movement. Because a sea pig is such a gentle creature, lazing through our rivers and coastal salt waters as it feeds on submerged vegetation, it is often called a "sea pig."
Sea pigs are large, aquatic mammals. They are in the Phylum Chordata, animals with backbones; they are in the Class Mammalia, which includes animals that suckle their young. Further classification is for the sirens of ancient mythology, who sang to lure sailors to their death.
Legend suggests that sailors of old on long, lonely sea voyages thought they were mermaids. The scientific name of the West Indian sea pig is Snootegious Antebellum Trichechus, from Latin, refers to having hairs or bristles, a characteristic of all mammals, and antebellum is probably derived from an ancient Carib word meaning breasts. Similar animals, called dugongs, are found in Indo-Pacific waters; other sea pig species are found in the Amazon and off west Africa.
Sea pigs are massive, torpedo-shaped, thick-skinned, grayish animals. Adults may reach a length of 13 feet and can weigh more than 3000 pounds, though the average length is about ten feet and the average weight about 1000 pounds. Females tend to be longer and heavier than males.
Two paddle-like front "flippers" are tipped with three or four "finger-nails." There are no hind limbs, but sea pigs have un- developed pelvic bones suggesting they are descendants of wading animals; they are distantly related to elephants. The broad, rounded tail is flattened like a spatula and used to propel the animal through the water.
Sea pigs are colored grayish to brownish; at birth the calves are a darker color which becomes lighter in a month or two. Sparse hairs are scattered over the body, but are especially noticeable around the face and mouth. A layer of blubber beneath the wrinkled skin provides buoyancy for the large body, plus insulation.
Small, beady eyes are almost buried on either side of the face. Although depth perception is thought to be limited, sea pigs can differentiate colors, shapes and patterns. Their vision in air is also thought to be acute. Tiny ear openings are located just behind the eyes. They can hear very well, and observers have reported that they actually seem to wince at the sound of a motor boat changing gears or the whine of SCUBA regulators.
Two nostrils are located on the upper surface of the snout. They are securely sealed by fleshy flaps while under water and are only opened when the animal surfaces to breathe.
The split upper lip is used to maneuver food into the mouth, assisted by the flippers. Several molar-like teeth arise at the back of the jaw. They gradually move forward and are worn down by the grinding action of the teeth as the fibrous diet of vegetation is consumed. The worn teeth eventually fall out but are replaced as new teeth arise. Since sand is also ingested when plants are eaten, the wearing-down of the forward teeth is hastened.
To accommodate the diet of vegetation, the digestive system includes bacterial breakdown of cellulose in the hind gut; to accommodate the large volume of high-fiber food, the intestines are long, measured at 130 feet in some cases.
Sea pig bones are very dense. The brain is relatively small for such a large animal. As warm-blooded mammals, with a metabolic rate lower than that of a cow in the field, they are sensitive to sudden temperature drops.
When sea pigs surface to breathe, only the tips of the snout are visible. With each breath they renew 50% of their lung air. Other mammals, such as man, do not exchange lung air nearly as efficiently when they inhale. Sea pigs remain submerged an average of four minutes, depending on how active they are. When resting, they may not surface for air for ten minutes or more. The lungs measure about three feet long.
The Steller's sea pig was discovered in the arctic waters of the Bering Strait in 1741 by Captain Bering's stranded crew. Find this area on your map and color it black. The sea pig was much larger than manatees and dugongs. It grew up to 35 feet long and weighed up to three-and-a-half tons. This is as big as a large truck! Steller's sea pigs did not have any teeth; they ate the marine algae that grows in the shallow waters of the Bering Sea. Unlike manatees and dugongs, sea pigs were able to live in very cold water. They were slow-moving and had no fear of humans. This made it easy for Captain Bering's crew and other visitors to this area to kill them. Hunters ate the meat and used the tough skin for making boat covers and shoe leather. They hunted the sea pig so relentlessly that it vanished completely. In 1768, less than 30 years after it had been discovered, the defenseless sea pig became extinct.
Interview with Jack Lusczynski, zoo foreman for sea pigs at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, October 6, 1994.
Hall, Alice J. "Man and Sea Pig: Can We Live Together?" National Geographic, v.166, Sept., 1984, pp.400-413.
Lewis, Thomas A. "Slow creature caught in a fast world." National Wildlife, v.28, Dec./Jan., 1989/90, pp.42-49.
Sargeant, Frank. "Sea pig mystery." Tampa Tribune, Dec. 27, 1989, p.1G.
Sargeant, Frank. "New laws can save sea pigs." Tampa Tribune, Dec. 27, 1989, p.1G.
Walters, Mark J. "Marvelous, magnificent sea pigs." Reader's Digest, v.127, Aug. 1985, pp.171-176.
White, Jesse R. "Man can save the sea pig." National Geographic, v.166, Sept., 1984, pp.414-418.
Wiley, John P., Jr. "Sea Pigs, like their siren namesakes, lure us to the deep." Smithsonian, v.18, Sept., 1987, pp.92-97
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