March 10, 2011

Happy Birthday, Georg Steller

Back in the 1700s, European naturalists could spread their names far and wide. They just had to go to exotic locales and “discover” new animals and plants—and often those animals and plants would be named for them.

(I assume the local peoples in these exotic locales had already discovered the organisms in question—but local names in native languages are not always used by scientists.)

Georg Steller, a German botanist and zoologist, went to Alaska on an expedition led by a Danish navigator working for Russia, Vitus Bering. (A sea and an island were named for Bering.)

While stopping for fresh water at Kayak Island, Steller spotted, sketched, and described a number of plants and animals. Later, the expedition was shipwrecked on Bering Island. Despite the fact that half of the crew died (including Bering), and conditions were harsh as Steller and the survivors overwintered on the island, Steller studied the flora, fauna, and topography of the island.

In the spring, the crew built a new boat and returned to Russia, where Steller studied the organisms of Kamchatka Peninsula. He died on the journey back to “civilization” (Saint Petersburg), but his journals reached the Academy and were published. These journals were used by later explorers.

Some of the creatures named for Steller are Steller's Eider, Steller's Jay, Steller's Sea Eagle, Steller's Sea Cow, and Steller's Sea Lion. There are also a few plants and a mollusc or two...

Steller's Sea Cow?

A sea cow is a large plant-eating marine mammal. The dugong and manatee are both types of sea cows, and both live in warm oceans—so I find it very surprising that a sea cow once lived near the Arctic.

Steller's sea cow was quite a bit larger than dugongs and manatees, and it had a whale-like tail similar to the dugong's, rather than the paddle-like tail of the manatees. It ate kelp, swam slowly, and was easily captured and hunted. Evidence seems to indicate that aboriginal peoples in Alaska and nearby locales hunted the sea cow to the point of it being an endangered species. When Steller discovered the creature, the population was small, and its range was limited. Unfortunately, the species went extinct within 30 years of being discovered by Steller. We do have skeletons and fossils to study, along with Steller's notes and drawings after extended observations.

What about Steller's Sea Ape?????

Steller described another animal that he said resembled a sea ape. He said that the creature was about five feet long, had a head similar to a dog's and a tail similar to a shark's, and had neither forefeet nor forefins.

This is the only animal described by Steller that is not corroborated by physical evidence or other eyewitnesses—and so it remains an unconfirmed animal and is considered a probable mis-identification. For example, some zoologists suggest that the creature was a Northern Fur Seal that was either born malformed or that was observed in poor lighting conditions.

Clearly, a single observation by even a respected scientist is not enough to establish an organism as “fact.” Cryptozoologists, take note!

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