A beach in Siberia was recently host to quite a blast from the past: the discovery of a remarkably close-to-complete skeleton of a Steller’s sea cow, a species thought to have gone extinct by the late 1700s.
Vice Motherboard has the story:
This particular skeleton was found in the Komandorsky Nature Reserve, an ecological sanctuary that’s been submitted for inclusion on the World Heritage List. Russian researcher Marina Shitova, who has studied Komandorsky’s northern fur seals, first spotted the animal’s rib cage protruding through the soil.
Eight people exhumed the skeleton over the course of four hours. From end to end, it measured 17 feet, though its skull and several vertebrae were missing. Mature adults could reach lengths of 25 feet, and weighed between eight and ten tons. Apart from cetaceans, the Steller’s sea cow was quite possibly the largest mammal of the Holocene, which began roughly 11,700 years ago (and arguably ended at the start of today’s Anthropocene) […]
Most of the Steller’s sea cows you’ll see in museums are composite skeletons—amalgams of various individuals. Currently, the Finnish Museum of Natural History in Helsinki claims to have the only displayed specimen that’s fully intact.
That the Steller’s sea cow survived to the 18th century is unique among megafauna with origins in the Pleistocene, which began 2.6 million years ago, and ended with the arrival of the Holocene. By that time, other Pleistocene species like the moa and ground sloth were long gone. These gentle giants found a niche in the Bering Sea, withstanding freezing temperatures thanks to generous blubber and a thick skin. They fed mostly on kelp, and lived in social family groups. The species was monogamous, according to reports from naturalists who observed them.
National Geographic has more on the significance on this find:
“This is the only sea cow that we’ve ever found that’s intact in situ,” says Lorelei Crerar, a George Mason University professor who published a paper on sea cows in 2014. “All we’ve got is just this one record of this animal and that’s it” […] Crerar is hopeful the skeleton’s head is in the area somewhere, and might be unearthed by further excavation.
One account of an explorer from 1751 highlights what may be the beast’s most remarkable characteristic: they actually seemed to mourn their dead mates. The passage describes having captured a female sea cow, which provoked a male to attempt to free her and chase the humans to shore.
“[W]hen she was dead he would sometimes come up to her as unexpectedly and as swiftly as an arrow,” the account reads. “When we came the next day, early in the morning, to cut up the flesh and take it home, we found the male still waiting near his mate.”
What a sorrowful anecdote from the past…and what a fascinating discovery in the present.
What do you think about this development? Is there anything you think humanity can learn from it? Have you ever seen one of these partial skeletons in a museum? Share your feedback in the comments below!