Sunday, October 8, 2017

Named for Georg Wilhelm Steller

Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746) was an 18th-century German naturalist and explorer [1]. As a ship's doctor, he was accompanying Danish cartographer and Russian naval captain Vitus Jonassen Bering (1681-1741) on his expeditions to the north-eastern coast of Asia (eastern Siberia) and the western coast of  North America. Stellar became the first European naturalist who came ashore Alaska, where he described various animals of the North Pacific, some of which bear his name, either in the common or in the scientific name, or in both:
  • Gumboot chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri), the largest of the chitons
  • Steller's sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas), a sirenian hunted to extinction
  • Steller's eider (Polysticta stelleri), a sea duck
  • Steller's sea eagle  (Haliaeetus pelagicus)
  • Steller's sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus)
  • Steller's jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)
The latter two “Steller animals” are also found in regions farther south, such as California. From a San Francisco Bay perspective, Nate Seltenrich writes about Steller's sea lion [2]:

We see mostly females and pups [along California's coast]. 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.

And about Steller's jay Seltenrich notes [2]:

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 fate winter [when shipwrecked on Bering Island], 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 expedition that pioneered Alaskan natural history. 

Also, plants have been named by and for Steller. Further, the Georg Wilhelm Steller Gymnasium in Bad Windsheim (Steller's place of birth) near Nuremberg has been named to honor the explorer [3].


Keywords: natural history, zoology, discovery, Pacific coast

References and more to explore

[1] Auf den Spuren Wilhelm Stellers. 2009 StellerJahr Bad Windsheim. Link: georg-wilhelm-steller.de/biografie.html.
[2] Nate Seltenric: Steller: The Man Behind the Name. Bay Nature, October-December 2017, page 10.
[3] Willkommen am Georg-Wilhelm-Steller Gymnasium. Link: www.gwsg.net/.