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Leviathan of Bering Island

A rare find: the scientists of the Komandorsky reserve discovered the skeleton of Steller's extinct cow

Leviathan of Bering Island
Photo: Marina Shitova

The opening awaited the staff of the reserve on the shore, which they seemed to go up and down. On the Bering Island * huge ribs protruded from the sandy cliff like a picket fence. They did not belong to any of the species living here - sea or land - the wrong size. They didn’t look like whales either.

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- This fall, we had three cyclones on the Commanders with wind more than 30 m / s, and large storms bare the shore terrace. The grass was badly curved. I think this cow washed away with the last cyclone. It turns out, the elements helped our find! - told the agency East Russia researcher reserve "Commander" Marina Shitova.

In place of the expedition went, 8 employees of the reserve for the time being retrained to paleontologists and half a day carefully excavated the ancient skeleton of pebbles and sand. The lower fragments were hidden at a depth of about 70 cm. The bones were carefully cleaned of sand, dried, photographed and marked, so as not to be mistaken in the subsequent assembly of the historical "puzzle". Then each bone was packed in a separate bag to reduce friction during transportation.

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- We had a great event! We found the almost complete skeleton of Steller's sea cow - a fossil that disappeared almost 250 years ago! This is fantastic news, both for the reserve and for the world science as a whole. Judging by the size and small mineralization of the bones, it was a young specimen, probably one of the last to live.  

The found skeleton consists of 45 vertebrae, 27 ribs, left shoulder blades, bones of the shoulder and forearm, several bones of the wrist. In the revealed skeleton there was no skull, cervical spine, 1-2 of the thoracic vertebra, several caudal vertebrae, right side of the thoracic extremities belt, as well as the bones of the pastern and the phalanges of the fingers of the left extremity. The total length of the skeleton was 5,2 meters. Given the length of the missing parts of the vertebral column and head, it can be assumed that the total length of the animal was about 6 meters - shared the deputy director on scientific issues of the reserve "Commander" Evgeny Mamaev.

With such a length, a sea cow could weigh up to 10 tons. Of the aquatic mammals, only the whale is larger than it. Previously, parts of the skeletons of a Steller cow were found in the Aleutian Islands, Kamchatka and California. The Commander Islands became the last habitat of this marine mammal on the planet. The population was knocked out by local hunters in just 27 years after the discovery of the species. I'll clean it up.  

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Information: Sea cow, or Steller's cow, or cabbage (lat. Hydrodamalis gigas - giant sea cow) - a mammal of the siren squad exterminated by man. Opened in 1741 year the expedition of Vitus Bering. The name was given in honor of naturalist Georg Steller, the physician of the expedition, on whose descriptions a significant part of the information about this animal is based.

Steller's cow lived only off the coast of the Commander Islands, although modern paleontological data say that in prehistoric times its range was noticeably wider. Behavior of the animal was characterized by slowness, apathy and lack of fear of man. She led a coastal lifestyle, ate exclusively seaweed, alaria and laminaria. These factors, facilitating the extraction of cows by humans, contributed to its rapid disappearance. The low total number of cows played at the time of the discovery - about two thousand. The ensuing after the discovery of predatory extermination for the sake of tasty meat led to the complete disappearance of this animal to 1768 year. Steller wrote that sometimes peace-loving and not fearful sea cows were extracted simply from excitement. They were hunted with the help of a harpoon, but only one in five managed to pull ashore - the rest perished from wounds in the water.

There is a controversial opinion that the cabbage butterfly represented a dead-end branch of evolution and would eventually replenish the collection of extinct species without human intervention.



Fig .: A female sea cow described and measured by G. Steller. It is considered the only depiction of a cow made from life.

The discovery of almost the whole skeleton of Steller's sea cow is a big event these days. The last time the remains of cabbage were found here 30 years ago. They are kept in the museum of Nikolskoe on Bering Island. In the world's museums are represented, in the majority, prefabricated skeletons. Full, that is, belonged to one animal, there are about 20.

- In general, this is a place where you will never leave without bones in the winter. Local people collect them for crafts or for sale. We have two masters in the village. The edge of the steller cow is within 10 thousand in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. This is considered contraband. If, for example, everything is legalized about mammoth tusks, licenses are issued, you can get the bones officially, then there are no laws about the cow, and we do not understand how to do it legally - shared with East Russia resident of Nikolskoe.      

Probably, samples of the skeleton of the steller cow will be sent for examination to Moscow. And next year at the exhibition in the visit-center of the reserve it will be the main exhibit, telling about the nature of the Commander Islands, including the one we lost.

*Bering Island - the largest island in the Commander Islands. Located to the east of the Kamchatka Peninsula, from which it is separated by the Kamchatka Strait, which connects the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Administratively, the island is part of the Aleutian region of the Kamchatka Territory. The island was discovered by the expedition of Vitus Bering in 1741, here is the grave of the navigator.

Photo: Julia Pulit, Marina Shitova, Evgeny Mamaev.

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