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May 20, 2011

Steller's Sea Cow: the defenseless beast (extinct since 1768)

Formerly found near the Asiatic coast of the Bering Sea, it was discovered in in 1741 by the naturalist Georg Steller, who was traveling with the explorer Vitus Bering. The sea cow grew up to 7.9 meters (25.9 ft) long and weighed up to three tons, much larger than the manatee or dugong. It looked somewhat like a large seal, but had two stout forelimbs and a whale-like tail. According to Steller, "The animal never comes out on shore, but always lives in the water. Its skin is black and thick, like the bark of an old oak..., its head in proportion to the body is small..., it has no teeth, but only two flat white bones—one above, the other below". It was completely tame, according to Steller. Fossils indicate that Steller's Sea Cow was formerly widespread along the North Pacific coast, reaching south to Japan and California. Given the rapidity with which its last population was eliminated, it is likely that the arrival of humans in the area was the cause of its extinction elsewhere as well. There are still sporadic reports of sea cow-like animals from the Bering area and Greenland, so it has been suggested that small populations of the animal may have survived to the present day. This remains so far unproven. 


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