Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Steller's Sea Cow

The story of the Steller's Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) is a tragic one. In 1741, the ship of Dutch navigator Vitus Bering became wrecked on an island off the coast of the Kamchatka Penninsula (which would later be named Bering Island.) Bering and many of his crew members died on that island, which I suppose was a bad omen for the poor Sea Cows that were discovered there by the expedition's naturalist, Georg Steller. Steller wrote about the creatures once he and the crew were able to build a new ship from their old wreckage and leave the island. Within 27 short years, the entire species went extinct.

(Image Source)
How? Why? Bering's crew only killed and consumed one Sea Cow during their stay, but the meat was described as being delicious and of a quality that took longer to spoil than other meat. They had hides that could be used in boat making, and valuable oil that could be both eaten and burnt. Hunters began to travel to Bering Island, decimating the already minuscule population. (Estimates place the number at Steller's discovery to be around 1,500 individuals) The death of the last Steller's Sea Cow was recorded in 1768.

Steller's Sea Cows were the only Arctic members of the order Sirenia, which includes modern Manatees and Dugongs. They were also the largest; Steller recorded specimens as long as 28 feet. This dwarfs modern Sirenians which rarely grow larger than 12 feet. Steller's Sea Cows were also herbivores, which differs from most other marine mammals. They fed off of kelp and various algae. They lived in herds and were described by Steller as being monogamous.

Steller's Sea Cows were confined to arctic waters, though ancestral species within the same genus had a wider range that spread down as far as Southern California. They, and all other Sirenians, are most closely related to Hyraxes, small rodent-looking creatures. They are also distantly related to Elephants and other members of the Superorder Afrotheria.

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