Bill Long 10/16/04
So far every one of the "stell"-related words has some connection to the original Latin root, stella, meaning "star." An obvious connection with stars is evident in stellar, stelliform, stellify and stellate. We saw that stellation, which means a blighting or blasting of trees, is so called because this blasting was supposed to be produced under influence of the stars. The Stellerids are star-fish. Even the legal term stellionate, having primarily to do with fraud in conveyance of land, is derived from stellion, a lizard with star-like spots on it. A person who practices the crime of stellionate is as crafty and cunning as the stellion.
But then we come to the word Steller/ine and we are in a different world, for this is the name of a famous 18th century German naturalist, Georg Wilhelm Stellar (1709-1745), the scientist appointed to accompany Vitus Bering on his second (and final) journey to determine if the land masses of Russia and North America were connected.
The tales of that epic voyage, leaving the Kamchatka Peninsula in May 1742 with 78 men and returning 14 months later with 46 survivors, have been frequently told, not least of which by the future Senator from Alaska, Ernest Gruening, in 1954. Two ships left Kamchatka at the end of May 1741 to determine once and for all (an earlier journey of Bering had ended up inconclusively) whether Alaska was connected to Russia. Bering's ship came in sight of Alaska in July, but was ordered by the captain to return because of the fear of early Winter weather. The other boat, commanded by Chirikov, separated from Bering during a storm, and touched the Alaskan coast. Click here for a map of the two journeys of Bering to the Russian/Alaskan waters. On the return trip several sailors died and one of them, Shumagin, had an island in the Aleutian chain named after him.
But we need to get to the meat of our story, so to speak. The St. Peter, Bering's and Steller's ship, wrecked off an island a few hundred miles from home in November 1741 and the weary and scurvy-afflicted crew was forced to winter on that island (now called Bering Island). Bering and many died, while Steller taught the crew how to sustain themselves in the inhospitable clime. One of the mammals that which was available to them for food (beginning in Spring 1742) was a large sea cow, up to 28 feet in length and weighing between 7-8 tons. Though taxonomically called the Hydrodamalis gigas (great sea cow), it was known as Steller's sea cow or Stellerine. The Stellerine belonged to the Sirenian Order and was one of the five genera, along with manatees and dugongs, of Sirenians.* Steller kept a notebook of
[*It is not clear to me why Linneaus chose Sirenidae as a name to describe the family including the dugong and manatee, among a few others. Undoubtedly derived from "siren," the sea nymph(s) in Greek mythology who by their singing fascinated and then destroyed sailors, the name could have been selected simply because of the aquatic similiarity with the sirens of ancient Greek mythology.]
his observations written in Latin, and he published a description of the sea cow when he returned safely to shore in 1742 (the notes were first published in 1743). A few lines of his description follow:
"To the waist the animal looks like a seal, downward like a fish. The belly has the proportions of a frog. Along the backbone a hollow area exists. The arm bones are thick and lack finger bones, 'like an amputated limb.' The end is covered with a thick brush of bristles. Small head, short neck, similar to a buffalo, especially the lips. These carry very strong bristles. The skull has no teeth but a horny chew plate. The eyes are hiddlen, small lik esheep eyes. Ear holes have the size of a pea and are hidden."
Some eyewitnesses later published some of their sketches of the Stellerine sea cow. You can see a sketch on the excellent new German and English web site of Hans Rothauscher. Within 30 years after their discovery, this aquatic herbivorous mammal was extinct. Martin Sauer reported in 1802 that when he visited Bering Island in 1768, the last of the Stellerines was killed for food. Some scholars posit, however, that the species was on a gradual course of natural extinction, and that the killing of some Stellerines was not the cause of their depletion. Rothauscher has a list of several museums which have partial skeletons of the Stellerine.
Other Discoveries of Steller
Despite the fact that Steller died before his 40th birthday, his name also appears in the name of animals asociated with his explorations. There is the Steller's duck, a black and white duck with reddish underparts (Polysticta stelleri), found in Siberia, Alaska and Canada; Steller's jay, a blue jay with a dark crest (Cyanocitta stelleri), found in Western North America; and Steller's sea-lion (Eumetropias jubata), found in the northern Pacific.
Because I am a resident of the Pacific Northwest, where the Steller's Jay resides, I close this mini-essay with a description of that jay:
Description: The dusky head and body, blue wings and tail, and prominent crest make this jay easy to identify. The Steller’s Jay and its eastern counterpart, the familiar Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), are the only crested jays in North America, and the only New World jays with barred wing and tail feathers.
It almost makes you want to become a naturalist or a historian, or at least learn Latin, doesn't it?
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long