Some of the animals first described by Steller are familiar species to those of us who live in what was once Russian America, like the Steller's jay who flashed past my window this morning (and pooped on my car last week). Others, like the enormous sea cow and the flightless spectacled cormorant, were hunted to extinction so swiftly that Steller’s notes and a few bones and rumors are the only evidence we have that they ever existed.
I’ve had a fascination with the massive, doomed Steller’s Sea Cow ever since reading Corey Ford’s hauntingly majestic book Where the Sea Breaks Its Back when I was a teenager. I had the idea then for a painting of all Steller’s namesake animals, a challenge which I’ve finally decided to take on this winter. To give you a notion of what sort of challenge this is, here’s a list of the organisms I’m trying to cram into this picture (and I’m still finding more to add to this list):
- Steller’s Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas, formerly Rhytina stelleri) – Reportedly delicious, and hunted to extinction by 1768, this cousin of manatees and dugongs reached lengths of 30 ft, and existed only around the Commander Islands.
- Steller’s Sea Lion (Eumetopias jubatus) – The sea cow, sea lion, fur seal, and sea otter were described in depth by Steller in his best-known book, De Bestiis Marinis (Beasts of the Sea). Written mostly while Steller was living in a tiny driftwood hut on Bering Island during the winter of 1741-42, while hunting for survival and battling the foxes who would steal his notes and specimens, De Bestiis is a lively and detailed account of the anatomical, behavioral, and culinary qualities of each animal.
- Steller’s Sea Ape (no formal name) – Steller observed this animal for half an hour from the ship’s deck – and no one knows for sure what on earth it was. Theories range from misidentified fur seal to elusive cryptid, to private joke by Steller after too long spent cooped up with aggravating shipmates.
- Steller’s Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus)
- Steller’s Eider (Polysticta stelleri)
- Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) – In his journal, Steller reported that this bird, more than anything else, convinced him that the expedition had reached part of North America, based on its resemblance to the blue jay he had seen illustrated years earlier in a book by Catesby.
- Steller’s Albatross (aka short-tailed albatross, Phoebastria albatrus)
- Steller’s Sculpin (aka frog sculpin, Myoxocephalus stelleri)
- Steller’s Rockbrake (Cryptogramma stelleri) – a lovely little fern
- Steller’s Alpine Speedwell (Veronica stelleri)
And those are just the common names!
Though most of us know his name today from marine mammals and birds, in his time Steller was well known as a botanist, and was held in high esteem by Linnaeus. It’s worth noting the binomial nomenclature made standard by Linnaeus was not yet in use when Steller went to Alaska. Furthermore, since Steller died young, most of his discoveries were formally named by other scientists working from his notes and specimens. One might get the impression from this list that the guy was a bit of a megalomaniac, but it wasn’t Steller who named everything for himself. I suspect a few organisms named for Steller are more recent discoveries named in his honor, which he never personally encountered, but I’ve not yet gotten deep enough into his notes to sort out which are which.
Some Steller love in the Latin names:
- Cassiope stelleriana (starry bell-heather)
- Artemisia stelleriana (dusty miller or hoary mugwort)
- Glyptocephalus stelleri (blackfin flounder)
- Hexagrammos stelleri (whitespotted greenling)
- Stellerina xyostema (pricklebreast poacher)
- Cryptochiton stelleri (gumboot chiton) – I nerded out to some strangers on an Oregon beach when I noticed the scientific name for this in my guidebook. “Hey, it’s named for Georg Steller! That guy was awesome! Did you know he was the first scientist in Alaska?” They looked at me kind of funny.
- Acanthomysis stelleri (a little shrimp)
- Metopa stelleri (Kurile Islands shrimp)
- Parametopella stelleri (yet another little shrimp)
- Thuiaria stelleri (a hydroid)
- Turbonilla stelleri (a small conical sea snail)
- Tamarixia stelleri (a little fly)
- Galactosum stelleri (a flatworm parasite found on sea lions)
Then there are the organisms not actually named for Steller, but so closely associated with him that I’d like to work them into the painting anyway – the spectacled cormorant, which Steller was the only scientist to describe before its extinction; the salmonberry, about which he waxed rhapsodical upon finding it on Kayak Island (Bering was not so enthused about his naturalist’s attempt to lug home several bushes replanted in boxes, and refused cargo space); and the fur seal and sea otter described in De Bestiis Marinis.
The sea otter, especially, merits a nod, as the news of its luxurious fur was probably the most important fact the Bering expedition returned about the new land to the east of Kamchatka. That fur was Alaska’s original black gold. The mad rush of hunters who swarmed up the Aleutian chain forever altered the North Pacific coast, in ways that Georg Steller – nature lover, despiser of wasteful slaughter, outspoken advocate for fair treatment of Native people – would have found appalling. We have lost, wholly or partially, many of the natural and cultural riches Steller glimpsed at first contact; it is in part thanks to his keen observations, carefully preserved, that we have not forgotten entirely such wonders ever existed.