Steller's sea cow
|Steller's sea cow|
Steller's sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) an extinct relative of dugongs and manatees, was formerly an inhabitant of the coastlines of the Bering Sea. Discovered in 1741 during the explorations of the Russian Vitus Bering, Steller's sea cow has the dubious distinction of being hunted out of existence less than thirty years later, the fastest extinction of a large animal at the hands of man.
Among the crew in Bering's mission was a German naturalist, Georg Wilhelm Steller, and it is from his 1751 work De Bestiis Marinis that we have the only account of the sea cow and its habits from life. It was a large animal, approximately 26 feet long and weighing up to 4 tons. It was very dark, almost black, in color, and Steller described the inch-thick wrinkled skin as "more like the bark of an ancient oak than unto the skin of an ancient animal...black, mangy, wrinkled, rough, hard, and tough," apparently covered throughout with what he called a "hard cuticle." Body hair was limited to thick bristles which lined the mouth and smaller hairs on the stubby arms. The eyes were small and did not have functioning eyelids; rather, Steller noted, they were covered with a "cartilaginous crest" like the sea otter, which did the function of a nictating membrane. The ears were small holes in the sides of the head. The tail was whale-like, unlike the manatee with its rounded tail
Feeding consisted of hours spent on beds of seaweed, grazing rather like cattle for hours. They frequented river and stream outlets where they lived in herds, keeping the calves in the center as protection from possibly their only natural enemy, killer whales.
Steller stated that he was able to get near the animals enough to "stroke their backs with my hand...they were very voracious and eat incessantly, and because they are so greedy they keep their heads always under water, without regard to life and safety. Hence a man in a boat, or swimming naked, can move among them without danger and select at ease the one of the herd he desires to strike." In hunting from a boat they routinely went after the adults - the young were too vigorous - and the thrashing made by a harpooned sea cow caused the rest of the herd to try to render assistance. The meat was reported to be like beef in flavor after cooking.
After Steller had made his reports to the court of St. Petersburg in Russia, fur traders and explorers routinely stopped in many of the islands of the Bering Sea to collect sea cow meat as provisions. The animal, once extensive over the Bering sea area and the Kamchatka Peninsula, had its numbers severely depleted due to hunting by native peoples; it was a rare animal when Steller first described it. Twenty-seven years after its discovery the last ones were taken in the Commander Islands.