Stellar’s Sea Cow, Stories, Myths, & Their Connection With Now Extinct Animals

November 6, 2016 in Animals & Insects

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The Stellar’s Sea Cow was an enormous marine mammal related to the manatee and to the dugong that live until very recently — until ~1772 or so. Following “discovery” in 1742 they were subsequently hunted to extinction over the course of only 3 decades.

For those wondering, the species was named after its “discoverer” Georg Wilhelm Steller. Notably, Stellar himself died (in Siberia) only a few years after making it off the island where he “discovered” the animals, while shipwrecked there with his crew for 9 months.

The Steller’s Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) was an enormous animal, considerably bigger than even the largest West Indian Manatees — growing to reach lengths of 26 to 33 feet (8 to 11 meters), reportedly. Modern estimates suggest that adults could reach weights of between 8 and 10 tons. Some individuals may well have been larger though. It’s been classified within Sirenia.

Sea cow Stellar's

The description of the species made by Stellar described it as “not the sea cow of Aristotle, for it never comes upon dry land to feed, but it can use its fore limbs for a number of tasks: swimming, walking on the shallows of the shore, supporting himself on the rocks, digging for algae and seagrasses, fighting, and embracing each other.”

“It is covered with a thick hide, more like unto the bark of an ancient oak than unto the skin of an animal; the manatee’s (Authors note: this word was used in a general way when this was written) hide is black, mangy, wrinkled, rough, hard, and tough; it is void of hairs, and almost impervious to an ax or to the point of a hook.”

An interesting description. Nearly all that’s left of the animals now though, other than some bones accumulated in museums or feeding the oceanic substrate of the regions that they lived.

Given the way that human stories seem to change and bend to fit new purposes as they are passed down, I wonder if anything of the “Stellar’s Sea Cow” will be passed by in the minds of humans, as stories of the unicorn have kept something of the shadow of the elasmotherium alive to this day. Or will the species be one amongst countless others that will leave no real trace given a bit of time?

With regard to the elasmotherium, despite the superficial similarities, is there anything of that animal’s actual nature in the various northern hemisphere stories of unicorns? Perhaps something of its actual essence has survived in those stories as well? Or perhaps the stories are themselves simply the visible surface of something largely unknowable by a human’s mind? As with the surface of a seed?

Skeleton Stellar's sea cow

Stellar’s Sea Cow, Cause Of Extinction

Previous to the last hunting spree (killing of the last ~2,000) following “discovery,” the species’ population numbers seem to have taken a dive off a cliff as a result of the mid-18th Century “Fur Rush” which saw demand for sea otter pelts explode. This “blood orgy,” as some have referred to it, wiped sea otters out of existence in some regions, and nearly so in others (though the animals never went extinct). As a result, sea urchin numbers boomed, and thus destroyed huge areas of kelp forest, as they weren’t being kept in check by sea otters any longer.

The enormous Stellar’s Sea Cow being the animal that it was — huge, and with huge calorie/food requirements — it was likely not in a position to deal with the loss of its primary food source.

The relic population that Stellar, and the crew of the ship he was on, came across on what’s now known as Bering Island was seemingly one of only a very few left following the presumed mass die-off that accompanied the sea urchin population explosion. With the neighboring Medny Island also playing host to a notable population at the time, reportedly.

Owing to its large size, and it’s reportedly aloof disregard for humans, the species made an attractive target for hunters traveling through the region. Once word got out, this meant that the were quickly hunted to extinction.

In other words, they were subject to what a great many small or relict populations are following a period of relative isolation — naivety, about things/people/dangers outside of the isolated area.

“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 — and accomplish it all while they are feeding,” Stellar noted.

Model Stellar's sea cow

Stellar noted, though, that the young ones were much harder to pursue, and that they moved much more “vigorously” — which raises an interesting question. Just how old were the larger, older ones?

Manatees can live to be quite old, apparently to well over 60 years old, at the least. Considering that the Stellar’s Sea Cow lived in a very cold climate, and that animals in cold climates often live longer (if food is prevalent) than related species in warmer regions, you do have to wonder. Many of the individuals in question may well have been quite old at the time that Stellar came across them. (It’s worth remembering that manatees only give birth roughly once every 2 years, and generally only to one calf. And that animals with low population replacement rates, like most sirenians have, tend to live quite long.)

With regard to the apparent lack of agility in the larger ones, this is possibly tied to the various adaptions that allowed the species to live in much colder waters than other modern sirenians do — greatly reduced front flippers/limbs, and a thick ungainly body that featured very think skin and blubber. Though who knows to how much of a degree this was the case (as far as agility goes), perhaps they were just naive and didn’t consider people to be a threat?

Drawing of Stellar's sea cow original

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