Creationists be damned; I insist that we are all creatures of the sea. Look in your heart of hearts and I think you’ll agree. Regardless of your personal beliefs, how else can you possibly explain the salinity of tears or the grains of sand in our ears? Don’t question it. And on that note, I would like to force upon you the tragic tales of two wonderful inhabitants of the sea that are, alas, no more. First, the Labrador duck.
Described as a striking sea duck on many a website, the Labrador duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius) once inhabited the east coast of North America but was probably never very abundant.
Males in breeding plumage had attractive black and white patterning on the head, while females and juveniles were a mottled brownish-grey. Both males and females had bright white wing patches. Little is known about the breeding biology of these ducks and no nests have ever been described, but it is supposed that they bred along the Gulf of St. Lawrence and possibly along the coast of Labrador and elsewhere further north along the east coast. Labrador ducks had a unique bill structure, different from that of most ducks. The bill was wide and flat, with numerous lamellae (long, thin, hair-like projections) on the inner surface, suggesting that these animals sieved through silt and sediments for shellfish and small molluscs such as snails.
The Labrador duck is considered the first bird to have become extinct in North America after the year 1500. The last observation of a Labrador duck is reported to have been in Elmira, New York on Dec. 12, 1878, while the last specimen collected (i.e. shot) was taken in 1875 on the coast of Long Island, New York. There are very likely only 55 remaining specimens around museums and in cupboards worldwide.
It is not fully understood why the Labrador duck went extinct. They apparently rotted quickly and did not taste good to human hunters, so over harvesting wasn’t likely a major cause. Their eggs may have been over harvested (but not by scientists, since no nests were ever described). All you feather-wearing folk may be shocked and appalled to hear that another proposed contributing factor to the extinction of the Labrador duck was harvesting for the feather trade.
Other factors leading to the extinction of the Labrador duck may have included declines in the food upon which these ducks were heavily reliant, such as the aforementioned mollusks and shellfish. These declines occurred largely as a result of increases in human population, pollution and industry as settlement along the east coast of North America continued to develop during the late 1800s.
The second tale of woe I shall recount regarding extinct oceanic species is that of the Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas). Once the largest member of the order Sirenia, which includes such fat and fun-loving creatures as the manatees and dugongs, the Steller’s sea cow appears to have become extinct in 1768, a mere 27 years after its initial discovery by shipwrecked explorers of the North Pacific in 1741.
The sea cows were huge. They grew up to eight or nine metres in length, and existing information on their weight puts them anywhere from 5,400 to over 11,000 kilograms, expressed in such endearing terms as “puds” and “hundredweights.” In contrast, manatees weigh in at anywhere from 400 to 550 kilograms and dugongs 150 to 300 kilograms. While impressive in size, the Steller’s sea cow was apparently a gentle giant. They were herbivorous, apparently lived in groups, were slow moving and provided stupidly easy targets for human hunters (due to a combination of their slow speed, nonexistent ability to submerge and lack of fear of their new discoverers, the humans).
They did not have teeth but ground sea grasses, algae and kelp between large mandibular (jaw) plates made of keratin (the stuff of fingernails). They had small heads and horizontally fluked tails, similar to that of whales. Their large size was primarily due to the fact that, unlike other sirenians, they inhabited cold water.
Their large size and generous helping of blubber (fat) were adaptations designed to keep them warm.
Steller’s sea cows were found exclusively around the Commander Islands, in particular Bering Island and Medney Island. They apparently tasted delicious, a bit like veal or beef (if you like that sort of thing), and their fat was reported to have resembled that of almonds in flavour. According to reports of the time, the meat of the Steller’s sea cow had the additional virtue of being slow to rot (unlike that of the ill-fated Labrador ducks still holding out over on the east coast). Being so slow and edible, the Steller’s sea cows were hunted to extinction, largely for human consumption but also for making lamp oil and implements such as boots, belts and skin-covered boats.
The indiscriminate hunting of sea otters may have also contributed to the extinction of Steller’s sea cows due to the relationship between otters, sea urchins and kelp. Otters are one of the few animals that eat sea urchins, which in turn eat kelp.
Upon the removal of large numbers of otters, urchin populations begin to increase and can decimate kelp forests. The sea cows were vulnerable due to their small population size, estimated at around 1,500 individuals, and perhaps the additional pressure of not being able to find enough kelp to eat was simply too much for them to bear.
During the short time the Steller’s sea cow was known to us humans here on Earth, they fed and clothed us, gave us light and warmth, and inspired writings by influential authors of the day including Rudyard Kipling and Jules Verne.
Rest in peace, Camptorhynchus labradorius. Rest in peace, Hydrodamalis gigas. No one left alive on this planet today ever got to see either of you, but I for one wish I’d had the chance.
This author is definitely going to pour some booze out in the snow tonight to honour dead friends from the sea.