Lost Species: Steller’s Sea Cow


Steller’s sea cow, a cold water relative of the manatee and dugong, was unknown to modern people until 1741. At that time, the crew of Vitus Bering’s ship, the Sv. Piotr was ship-wrecked off the coast of Kamchatka, where the last remaining herds of these mammals lived. Through overhunting, Steller’s sea cow went extinct thirty years later.

However, this sea cow (Sirenian) has remained in the memory of many people. Over a century later, Rudyard Kipling in his short story “The White Seal” had Steller’s sea cow guiding seals to a place of refuge from hunters. A century later, people still report encounters with this marine mammal. In the mists and fogs of our imaginations, Steller’s sea cow still swims.

What was this Sirenian relative of the manatee and dugong like? Georg Wilhelm Steller, Bering’s naturalist, observed and described this animal. The largest of the sea cows, Steller’s sea cow fed on algae, kelp, and sea grass growing near river mouths. Like the dugong, He had a large, flat, lobed tail. He also had a huge midsection and a small head with a flexible neck. Lacking flippers, Steller’s sea cow had short limbs shaped like hooks. Instead of teeth, He used his keratinous plates to grind his food.

Scientists believe that the Steller’s sea cows that the Russian sailors found were an evolutionary relic (a small population restricted to a small area). According to the fossil record, Steller’s sea cows once lived from California to Japan. Some scientists think that early hunters eradicated sea cows from these areas. However, others think that the evolutionary pressures from global climate change forced the eventual extinction of these mammals.

One of the megafauna of the Pleistocene, Steller’s sea cow was one of the last of these animals to go extinct. As large as today’s whales, Steller’s sea cow could have been the largest mammal ever in the world. His extinction brought home to the Europeans, the reality that nothing was inexhaustible. Extinction was very real and very grave. His extinction gave birth to the study of how ecosystems work and can be disrupted.

Lessons that Steller’s sea cow teaches are varied. Because extinction is a part of living, life now becomes more precious. Sadness fills us when we hear about the cause of his demise. So much so that we neglect his life and fail to wonder who He was. Did Steller’s sea cow follow his dreams to the colder waters? Or were the manatee and dugong wise for staying in warmer waters? The answers lie beyond the mists of time and space. Steller’s sea cow beckons us to explore his world through memories and dreams.

Steller’s sea cow holds a place in our memories. He asks us to remember Him as He was, adventurous and fearless. We may feel sorrow and grief for his passing but we can hold Steller’s sea cow in our hearts. The hole that comes from his extinction still resonates with the manatee and dugong, who miss their brother terribly. The lesson that He teaches us is “that which is remembered still lives.” With that in mind, let us work to keep his siblings alive. Also let us venture into the mists to learn more from Steller’s sea cow.

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