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Bay Nature magazineOctober-December 2017

Who Was Georg Steller and Why Are Animals Named After Him?

by Nate Seltenrich on September 25, 2017

University of Tyumen, The Center of Russian-German Cooperation of Georg Wilhelm Steller

Georg Steller. (Courtesy University of Tyumen, The Center of Russian-German Cooperation of Georg Wilhelm Steller)

That crested camp-robber eyeing your pretzels, all squawk and blue feathers, is known as a Steller’s jay. And the Steller sea lion, quite vocal in its own right, is a larger, rarer cousin of Pier 39’s infamous California sea lion. Both the bird and the sea lion are native to the West Coast and named for Georg Wilhelm Steller, an 18th-century German botanist, zoologist, physician, and explorer.

Steller found his jay on what amounted to an extended water break. Danish explorer and Russian naval captain Vitus Bering’s 1741 search for a sea route to North America (across a strait now bearing his name) had paused at Kayak Island, 200 miles southeast of modern-day Anchorage, to replenish his ship’s supply of fresh water. Steller, the ship’s naturalist and doctor, rushed ashore, the first European naturalist on Alaskan soil—“frantically collecting specimens and observing wildlife,” according to one homage.

Later that year the St. Peter wrecked on an unknown island (later named for Bering) off the Russian coast, where its captain, and much of his crew, died. Steller survived and returned aboard a rebuilt ship to tell of the expedition, during which he became the first to describe a number of North American plants and animals. Among them: the Steller’s eider; the Steller’s sea eagle; the Steller’s sea cow, hunted to extinction by 1768; the Steller sea lion, often sighted at Año Nuevo Island and the Farallones but more common as far north as the Aleutians; and the Steller’s jay, whose similarity to the blue jay, based on a painting he’d seen, convinced Steller that the expedition had reached North America.

The sea lion and the jay are the only two Steller animals found in California. And when it comes to the sea lion, we see mostly females and pups. Males rarely appear except in the breeding season at rookeries, the southernmost of which is off the Oregon coast near Portland, says Cara Field, staff veterinarian at Sausalito’s Marine Mammal Center. In 42 years the rescue center has seen only 35 Stellers, 11 of them already dead and the rest mainly young pups, Field says, kept company during rehabilitation by their tourist-thrilling cousins.

The Steller’s jay’s range reaches south to Nicaragua. The largest jay in North America, it is identifiable as the only western jay with a crest. Although Steller’s original specimen was lost (as was his sea cow skeleton, and presumably others) when the expedition was stranded for that fateful winter, his field notes informed the naming of the Steller’s jay in 1788. So next time his namesake crashes your backyard feeder, remember Georg Steller and the Russian expeditions that pioneered Alaskan natural history.

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