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Bones on the Beach May Help Solve an Extinction Mystery

Sea Cow bones A "harvest" of Steller's sea cow remains from a trip along the beaches of Bering Island (NPS photo by Alexander Burdin).

March 2, 2012
The Steller's sea cow, the last giant Beringian marine mammal, was first discovered in 1741 by Georg Steller, naturalist on Vitus Bering's expedition. When discovered, Steller's sea cow populations had already been reduced from a wide North Pacific range to a relict population around the Commander Islands. By 1768, the last sea cow was killed on Bering Island. Although the animal went extinct more than centuries ago Pacfic storms continue to wash its bones upon the beaches of the Commander Islands.

Why did the sea cow go extinct? While hunting seems to have been the ultimate cause of the species extinction, by collecting and analyzing Steller's sea cow remains, the Climate Change: a View Through the Prism of Steller Sea Cow Extinction project tests the hypothesis that factors related to climate change influenced the eventual extinction.

This pilot study headed by Alexander Burdin of the University of Alaska Fairbanks pioneered an efficient lab method for studying aDNA (ancient DNA) from Steller’s sea cow and has provided the first data on genetic diversity within this extinct species. If you would like to learn more about this project, read the 2011 progress report.

Last Updated: March 5, 2012