Today, November 30, is Remembrance day for lost species. It’s a chance to think about the species we’ve lost and the species we are losing, and in this age of the sixth mass extinction, particularly those species we are losing because of human impact.
Today I am remembering Steller’s sea cow. We have few records of this amazing creature because we exterminated them only 27 short years after they were first described. This animal was hunted into extinction by 1768 after Europeans discovered many fur-bearing animals in North America and the fur trade quickly grew.
We don’t know much about Steller’s sea cow, but we do know that the species could grow up to 30 feet in length and weight up to 11 tons, bigger than most modern whales, bigger than Orca. They were related to manatees, which are a tropical water species, but Steller’s sea cows were adapted to colder climates and were found in the North Pacific.
Steller’s were discovered by hunters looking for sea otters, also hunted for their fur, who found the sea cows in the Commander and Aleutian islands.
The first scientist to see the Steller’s sea cows was Georg Wilhelm Steller, after whom they are named and almost everything we know about them comes from his descriptions. He noted that they were highly gregarious, and gathered in large groups near the shore to feed on kelp. Unfortunately this made them extremely easy to hunt and kill. Twenty seven years after Georg Steller first saw the sea cows, they were gone.
Steller’s sea cows “are held up as an example of the first sea mammal in modern times made extinct by human ignorance and greed.” — Richard Sabin, Principal Curator of Mammals a the Natural History Museum where you can read at good article about Steller’s sea cows.
As I remember the Steller’s sea cows, I also think of the Southern Resident Orca, a subspecies of Orca living near where I live in the Pacific Northwest. This population of whales is down to 74. They feed only on chinook salmon, whose population is also way down because of dams, overfishing, and pollution. In the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s humans here hunted these whales primarily to sell for display in marine parks, not knowing how few they were, or how special they are. They will likely go extinct because of human impacts to their environment, and it will be entirely our fault, just like it is our fault that Steller’s sea cows no longer roam the North Pacific.
Artist Brandon Ballengée is an environmental artist, who created a burnt, hand-colored lithograph of the Steller’s sea cow. The work, titled “RIP Steller’s Sea Cow” is part of a series called Frameworks of Absence, featuring species that are now extinct. The works are created by cutting images of the animals from historic prints printed at the time when the species became extinct. Ballengée is a biologist as well as a visual artist and much of his art is inspired by his work as a biologist. He writes:
As an artist, biologist and environmental activist, my concerns are for communities both human and non-human affected by climate change and other ecological impacts of the Anthropocene. Today’s environmental problems are global in scale and complex. To face this milieu of issues, we need the creativity of artists, scientists and those focused on other disciplines combined to creatively address such challenges we and other species currently face.
Check out his work in art and in science at his website.