The now-extinct Steller's Sea Cow was big. Really big.
You’ve almost certainly heard of the Steller sea lion and maybe the Steller jay or Steller eider. But do you know anything about the Steller sea cow? Or … even Georg Wilhelm Steller himself?
Deb Mignogno of Fort Abercrombie fills in the details for us in during this week’s edition of The Naturalist.
I’m Deb Mignogno, summer naturalist at Ft. Abercrombie State Historical Park.
So who was Steller? Georg Wilhelm Steller, born in 1709, was a
botanist, zoologist, physician and explorer. He is noted as being the
first European to set foot in what is now Alaska and for describing and
documenting some of the unique animal life of the region. He is
considered a pioneer of Alaskan natural history.
Northern Expedition was one of the largest organized exploration
enterprises in history, and Steller wanted to be involved. The goal of
the expedition was to find and map the eastern reaches of Siberia, and
to hopefully continue onto the western shores of North America to map
them, as well. In 1734, Steller moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, hoping
to accompany Captain Commander Vitus Bering on the expedition. In St.
Petersburg, initially Steller worked at the Imperial Academy of
Luckily for Steller, the Academy needed a third
scientist to travel with the expedition as far as the Kamchatka
Peninsula. Steller was overjoyed when he was selected to go. In
contrast the other scientists of his time, Steller was a naturalist of
wild country who did without the usual comforts, traveling light and
exploring vast stretches of territory. He scandalized other scientists
by refusing to wear a powdered wig.
Once on the Peninsula, Vitus
Bering initially refused Seller’s request to be included on the voyage
to find western North America. While waiting on the Peninsula to make
his plea again to Bering, Steller and a student of the Academy described
for the first time the life cycle of North Pacific salmon and
identified the five species by the names still in use today: humpback,
chum, sockeye, silver and king.
Finally, Vitus Bering summoned
Steller to join the voyage in search of America serving in the role of
scientist and physician. After Vitus Bering's ship, the St. Peter, was
separated from its sister ship, St. Paul, in a storm, Vitus Bering
continued to sail north and east, expecting to find land soon. Fresh
water was getting short, and the crew was growing increasingly restless
and irritable. After many days, Steller, observing floating seaweed and
land grass as well as observing hair seals and sea otters, species
which are normally close to shore, reasoned that land was not far to the
north. He urged the officers to steer a northerly course, but his
suggestion was treated with contempt. (He was not exactly an expert at
getting along with others!)
After considerable time lost, they
did sail northeast. They made landfall in Alaska at Kayak Island on
July 20 1741. Vitus Bering wanted to stay only long enough to take on
fresh water. Steller petitioned Captain Bering to allow more time for
land exploration and was granted 10hours. During this time, as the
first non-native to have set foot upon Alaskan soil, Steller became the
first European naturalist to describe a number of North American plants
and animals, including a jay later named Steller's jay. Recalling a book
of Carolinian birds by the English naturalist and artist Mark Catesby,
he remembered a colored plate of a blue, crested jay and that crested
jays are only found in the Americas. He wrote in his journal that the
Kayak Island jay proved beyond a doubt that they were in America.
The expedition had considerable problems returning to Kamchatka. They
stopped at one of the Shumagin Islands for water 40 days after leaving
Kayak Island, only to collect brackish water which made the crew sick
(once again they did not take Steller’s advice).
From there, with
most of the crew suffering from scurvy and with only 12 members of the
crew able to move and the rigging rapidly failing, the expedition
shipwrecked on what later became known as Bering Island. Steller nursed
the survivors, including Bering, but the aging captain died. Forty six
of the original crew of 78 lasted through the northern winter, surviving
on the meat of local seals, foxes, otters and a now extinct Pacific
manatee called Steller’s sea-cow.
Despite the hardships the crew
endured, Steller studied the flora, fauna, and topography of the island
in great detail...It was there that Steller documented a number of
animals, including the Steller’s sea lion, Steller’s eider, and
Steller’s sea eagle. Two of his discoveries, the Steller’s sea cow and
the spectacled cormorant, are now extinct.
Steller died while
returning to St. Petersburg. Fortunately, he kept a meticulous journal,
which arrived safely back at the Imperial Academy, documenting his many
discoveries. His journals were later used by other explorers of the
North Pacific, including Captain Cook.
The important achievements of
the expedition included the European discovery of Alaska, the Aleutian
Islands, the Commander Islands, Bering Island, as well as a detailed
cartographic assessment of the northern and north-eastern coast of
Russia and the Kuril Islands.
Check out our web site for all of
the wonderful programs we have scheduled for the summer – especially the
new Junior Park Ranger program.
I’m Deb Mignogno.