Featured Image Credit: Komandorsky Nature Reserve
By: Kira Krall
Komandorsky Nature Reserve research assistant Maria Shitova was scanning the beaches when she saw what looked like a white fence. Those tall white structures were actually the ribs of an animal that’s been extinct for almost 250 years. Shitova and her team began excavating the area and unearthed a 17-foot long Steller’s sea cow skeleton.
The Steller’s sea cow is a massive sirenian that was discovered by Europeans and hunted to extinction only 27 years apart. In 1741, Bering Sea explorers became shipwrecked on what is known today as Bering Island. With no trees and no land animals to hunt, they turned to the sea and German explorer Georg Steller discovered the enormous relative of the dugong. Word quickly spread of the fat, slow, and delicious food source swimming in large herds in the Bering Sea. This study determined that Steller’s sea cows were hunted at over seven times the sustainable limit. The extinction of this mammal was so rapid, Georg Steller was the only scientist that got to study it.
While the skeleton lacks a skull, it’s only one of 28 documented skeletons and the only remains ever discovered intact. It’s been 40 years since the last skeleton was discovered. Modern Steller’s sea cow researcher Lorelai Crerar hopes that the skull and the other bones are buried nearby and will continue excavation in the hopes of finding them.
Most of what we know about Steller’s sea cows come from the study of the skeletons and Georg’s observations and records of sea cow hunts. He watched the marine mammal munch on kelp using their strong lips shared with their extant relatives, the dugong and the manatee. The skeleton discovered by Maria Shitova will be put on display at the Komandorsky Nature Reserve.