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Skeletal sea monster found on Russian island – without its head

A coastal survey team came upon an unexpected discovery in Russia’s Kamchatka Territory late last week: the headless remains of a Pleistocene sea monster.

The massive skeleton once belonged to a creature known as Steller’s sea cow. While the species had an extensive range during the Pleistocene epoch, by the time they were discovered by European explorers in 1741, they lived only around the Commander Islands in the Bering Sea.

The explorers hunted them, finding that they had few defenses against harpoons. Just one massive, nearly 10-ton sea monster could feed a 30-person ship’s crew for a month, and the fat made an excellent substitute for butter, according to primary sources shared by Jacob Mikanowski in The Atlantic.

The sea cows’ run-in with the expedition, led by their namesake Georg Steller, spelled their demise. The species was extinct just 27 years after its discovery. Scientists suspect needless overhunting of the creatures contributed to their disappearance.

The skeletal remains found by the coastal surveyors would have been about 20 feet long, if the skull had been present. The manatee-like sea creatures could grow to nearly 30 feet. The researchers excavated 45 vertebrae, 27 ribs, a left shoulder blade and several other bones, the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology reported.

The remains are missing a skull, the cervical vertebrae, the right scapula, and a few other vertebrae and small bones.

“The discovery of such a sufficiently complete skeleton of Steller’s sea cow is an extremely important event not only for the Komandorsky reserve, but for science in general,” the ministry said.

The find is one of the most complete skeletons found since the 19th century. The last discovery of a full Steller’s sea cow skeleton was in 1987. That set of remains, found on Bering Island, was around 9 feet long.

“The found skeleton will become one of the central exhibits of the visitor center of the Komandorsky reserve,” the ministry said.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

Image credit: Commander State Biosphere Reserve

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