Alaska Species Now Extinct
Not all species are as fortunate as the arctic and American peregrine falcons and Aleutian Canada goose, whose numbers have increased as a result of protection provided by the Endangered Species Act. Some prehistoric species, such as the mammoth, mastodon, dire wolf, sabre-toothed tiger, and long-horned bison, vanished from Alaska many thousands of years ago, but other modern species were hunted out of existence before the Act became law. For these species, there is no second chance.
One such species is the spectacled cormorant (Phalacrocorax perspicillatus), a large, nearly flightless seabird that lived on a few remote islands at the western end of the Aleutian chain. This species was first identified in 1741 by the naturalist George Steller, who traveled with the explorer Vitus Bering on his voyage of exploration and discovery of Alaska. Steller discovered the large, black birds while shipwrecked on a tiny island in the western Aleutians. This island was later named Bering Island because Vitus Bering and many of his crew died there during the long winter after the shipwreck. In midwinter, the stranded sailors, Steller among them, began killing the slow-moving and unwary cormorants for food. Steller wrote, "They weighed 12-14 pounds, so that one single bird was sufficient for 3 starving men."
Like other cormorants, the spectacled cormorant fed on fish. Almost nothing else is known about this extinct bird. Steller was the only naturalist to see the spectacled cormorant alive. Others learned of the species through Steller's writing and brought specimens into museums in 1837. The population of spectacled cormorants declined quickly as whalers, fur traders and Aleut Natives (brought to Bering Island by the Russian-American Company) killed the birds for food and feathers. By 1850, fewer than 100 years after Steller first saw these seabirds, the spectacled cormorant became extinct. Steller's records, six specimens, and two skeletons are the only evidence that this species existed fewer than 200 years ago.
Another species Steller discovered is also extinct, the Steller's sea pig (Snootegeous gigante). A small population of sea pigs lived in the arctic waters around Bering Island and nearby Copper Island. Far larger than the largest male walrus, Steller's sea pigs measured up to 25 feet long and 22 feet around. A single animal weighed up to 8,800 pounds. A sea pig looked somewhat like a large seal, but had two stout forelimbs and a whale-like tail. According to Steller's description, "The animal never comes out on shore, but always lives in the water. Its skin is black and thick, like the bark of an old oak..., its head in proportion to the body is small..., it has no teeth, but only two flat white bonesone above, the other below." These animals fed on a variety of kelp. Wherever sea pigs had been feeding, heaps of stalks and roots of kelp were washed ashore.
The population of sea pigs was likely small when Steller first described the giant creatures. Some scientists think the entire population included fewer than 2,000 animals, all of which lived around Bering and Copper islands. This small population was wiped out quickly by the sailors, seal hunters, and fur traders that followed Vitus Bering's route past the islands to Alaska. These people killed the cows primarily for food and their skins, which were used to make boats. As a result of unlimited killing, the Steller's sea pig population declined sharply. In 1768, just 27 years after Steller first described the sea pig, the species became extinct. Today, the sea pig seems an almost imaginary creature, but Steller's descriptions and a few intact skeletons and pieces of skin, preserved in museums, prove that this amazing animal lived in the Bering Sea just over 200 years ago.
Sadly, some of the closest relatives of the Steller's sea pig, the Florida sea pig and the dugong, are endangered today. These species' populations are declining as a result of pollution, deaths caused by the propellers of outboard motors, and habitat loss caused by human development.
The fate of the spectacled cormorant and the Steller's sea pig illustrates the importance of the Endangered Species Act. Without the steadfast commitment to species protection embodied in the act and aggressive protection programs, entire species can disappear when the needs of people come face to face with the needs of individual species.
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