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Steller's Sea Cow, Hydrodamalis gigas, Pictures, Stock Photos, Images

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Now extinct, the Steller's sea cow is often listed along with the four surviving members of the order Sirenia - West Indian manatees, West African manatee, Amazonian manatee, and the dugong. Discovered in 1741, it was completely wiped out by man in less than 30 years.

The Steller's sea cow was an enormous relative of the dugong that measured 8-9 meters (25-28 feet) and weighed over 4 tons (8,800 lbs). It had a small head in proportion to its body, and its midsection was large and rounded, resembling an overturned boat. Its tail was fluked and whale-like, similar to that of the modern day dugong. It subsisted primarily on kelp.

The last of this species lived in the shallow waters surrounding the Commander Islands, which lie 200 miles east of the Kamchatka Peninsula near the tip of the Aleutian Islands. Fossil records indicate that similar creatures were once widely distributed from Japan to the North Pacific coast and down to California. It is suspected that humans were the cause of their demise in all of these areas, and that the last remaining animals, perhaps numbering 1,500-2,000, had survived unnoticed in the far north until being rediscovered in 1741.

What is known about the Steller's sea cow comes from the notes of German naturalist and physician Georg Wilhelm Steller, who was traveling on the ill-fated ship, St. Peter, on explorer Vitus Bering's expedition to the far north on behalf of Russia. The St. Peter, on a return trip to Kamchatka from Alaska, was blown off course and nearly destroyed at sea by strong winter winds. On Nov. 4, 1741, the crew made landfall on a previously unknown island which came to be called Bering Island. The surviving crew members found abundant sea otters there, which they slaughtered in great quantities for food. Later, they discovered an enormous sea cow calf of an unknown species stranded on some rocks at low tide, which they quickly slaughtered as well. The meat of this animal tasted far better to them than the meat of the sea otter, and they wasted no time in killing more of these animals, which grazed peacefully on kelp in the shallow waters.

Steller, while stranded on the island with the rest of the crew, spent much time observing the flora and fauna of the island, and took extensive notes about the animals he saw, including the sea cow. He noted the tiny head, the huge midsection, and the whale-like tail. He wrote that the hide was black, wrinkled and tough, and that it covered a fatty layer 4-9 inches thick. It had tiny external ear openings, but large internal ear bones, so its hearing was probably good. It had no teeth, but a bony plate used to masticate the seaweed.

Steller spent much time observing the behavior of the sea cows and noted that they lived in large, gregarious herds, grazing on kelp. They seemed not to notice the sailors, but were always preoccupied with feeding. They tore the seaweed from the rocks and chewed it like cows, stopping every few minutes to lift their heads to the surface and breathe in fresh air with a horse-like snort.

It was said that the sea cow meat tasted delicious, like veal, and that its almond-flavored oil helped preserve it for long periods of time. When the surviving crew of the St. Peter eventually reconstructed a boat and sailed to Kamchatka, they took with them a supply of the savory meat and enthusiastic accounts of its availability in the Commander Islands. Russian hunters and fur trappers soon headed for the islands in droves and slaughtered the sea cows indiscriminately. Often they would harpoon an animal, which would then head out to deeper waters to die. Only one in five harpooned sea cows was actually retrieved by the hunters, and of these, the hunters would often carve off a few hunks of meat and leave the rest of the carcass to rot.

In 1768, explorer Martin Sauer wrote an account of the death of the last remaining sea cow. Since then, there have been occasional unconfirmed reports of sea cow sightings in the Pacific North, one as recently as 1962. However, the likelihood of any Steller's sea cows remaining today is extremely remote.

Steller's Sea Cow
Steller’s Sea Cow, extinct, Hydrodamalis gigas, illustration. Image #: 000829

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Subphylum: Vertebrata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Sirenia

Family: Dugongidae

Subfamily: Hydrodamalinae

Genus Species: Hydrodamalis gigas

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