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Steller's Sea Cow: Habitat, Facts & Extinction

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In this lesson you will learn about Steller's Sea Cow, an extinct cousin of the manatee. This lesson includes information about its habitat, some interesting facts, and why it went extinct.

Cows of the Ocean

What are some characteristics of cows? They eat grass, they travel in herds, and they're pretty slow-moving most of the time. Looking at those traits, you can see why someone might refer to a manatee as a sea cow. In fact, there is an extinct cousin of the manatee that reminded Georg Steller (a scientist) so much of a cow that he named it Steller's Sea Cow. They might have looked very different than cows, but they did travel in herds and graze on seagrass, much like cows on land.

Habitat

Though the Steller's Sea Cow is now extinct, with no living members of the species, we know about their habitat from reports and from historical specimens, such as skeletons. They were first discovered in the Bering Sea by a ship that wrecked on Bering Island. The Sea Cows ate kelp and sea grass, so they lived in shallower areas where there were a lot of these. In addition, unlike their modern-day relatives, Sea Cows preferred colder water.

There is also evidence that they lived around St. Lawrence Island in the northern part of the Bering Sea. In earlier eras, their range might have extended further across the Pacific, from Japan all the way to California and Mexico. However, they were only ever seen by humans in the Bering Sea area.

This map shows the location of the Bering Sea
Bering Sea Map

Facts

Like their modern relatives, Steller's Sea Cows were slow-moving, gentle giants. They didn't even have teeth! Instead, they ate by grinding the kelp or sea grass in their mouths.

Only one scientist ever studied Steller's Sea Cow while it was alive, and this was Georg Steller. Most of what we know about the animal comes from him and from reports of sailors who encountered the animals. The sailors hunted the Sea Cows. There are even reports saying that the Sea Cow's blubber, or fat layer, tasted like almonds. That probably wouldn't be your first guess for an animal that lives in saltwater and eats grass!

Steller's Sea Cow was an enormous creature. It could grow up to 30 feet long, and weigh up to 10 tons! By contrast, manatees are typically only about six feet long.

The closest living relative to a Steller's Sea Cow is the dugong. This is a Southeast Asian species very similar to manatees. Interestingly, all of the members of the group that includes dugongs, manatees, and Sea Cows are closely related to elephants.

Stellers Sea Cow closely resembled living manatees
Stellers Sea Cow

Extinction

The story of how the Sea Cow became extinct is a sad one. The sailors who hunted the manatees discovered that they could feed 33 men for a month. When word got around about how much food they could provide, many people went out and hunted them in the following years. This was back before endangered species protection, so no one really kept track of the dwindling population. As a result, they were hunted to extinction less than 30 years after they were discovered.

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