Disappeared animals. Four case studies from the Biological Museum

May 27

On May 22, the world celebrates the Day of Biological Diversity. On this day, they talk about representatives of flora and fauna that are on the verge of extinction and have disappeared forever from the face of the earth. In the latter case, we are not talking about dinosaurs and prehistoric plants, but about species that have disappeared in the foreseeable past due to human actions. Just a few centuries ago, they could be seen in different places on the planet in their natural habitat, and today - only in museums. The Timiryazev State Biological Museum has several such exhibits.  For more information, refer the article on mos.ru.

Steller's sea cow: victim of gullibility

Timiryazev State Biology Museum

Steller's sea cows were discovered in 1741 during the Second Kamchatka Expedition of Vitus Bering. He sailed with the crew on two ships from Kamchatka to North America to explore its coast. On the way back on November 5, his ship ‘St. Peter’ docked at the island, which was later named in honor of the navigator. On November 28, a strong wind broke up the ship on the shore, the team had to spend the winter on the island in harsh conditions. Many died of scurvy, including Vitus Bering himself.

During the wintering, sea cows were first noticed. They were seen by the naturalist and doctor of the expedition, Georg Steller. Initially, he took the large backs of the animals, visible from the water, for the bottoms of overturned boats. He described his observations in diaries, thanks to which most of the information about this species is known today. In honor of the naturalist, the species he discovered was named.

In size, the Steller's sea cow was inferior only to whales: its length reached nine meters, and its weight - ten tons. Its Latin name sounds like Hydrodamalis gigas (giant water cow). Steller's sea cow fed with algae, first of all laminaria. The animal was chewing lazily, looking like a cow.

Timiryazev State Biology Museum

In appearance, Steller's cows most likely resembled their sirenian relatives - dugongs and manatees, but how they looked like can only be judged from surviving descriptions. The animals ' skin was gray and dark brown, thick and creased - Steller compared it to the bark of an old oak tree. The forelimbs were flippers, the body ended in a tail blade. The large lips were covered with vibrissae, the upper one was forked. It had no teeth - the Steller's sea cow ground up seaweed with two horny plates. In his diary, Steller compares it to a seal and a buffalo:

 “Up to the navel it looks like a seal, and from the navel to the tail it looks like a fish. Its skull is very similar to that of a horse, but its head is covered with meat and hair, and resembles, especially with its lips, the head of a buffalo. In the mouth, instead of teeth, there are two broad, oblong, flat and wobbly bones on each side. One of them is attached to the palate, the other - to the lower jaw. On these bones there are numerous, converging obliquely at an angle furrows and convex calluses, with which the animal grinds out its usual food - marine plants…”

Steller's sea cows led a sedentary lifestyle, gathering in flocks near the shore in shallow water. They probably couldn't dive. Slow and apathetic, they fed most of the time and were not afraid of humans at all. The animals became easy prey for the travelers, who were building a new ship from the wreckage to leave the island. They discovered that the meat of Steller’s sea cows is very tasty. Literally for 27 years, people have caught more than two thousands of them. By 1768, the species was completely exterminated.

The Steller's sea cows had no natural enemies. The animals lived to be 90 years old. They could only die under the ice in winter or in a storm. If they did not have time to swim away from the shore, they died from hitting the rocks. Steller's sea cows were monogamous and much attached to each other.

 “I did not notice any signs of remarkable intelligence in them, but they really are extremely fond of each other,” Steller wrote in his diaries, “and this love extends so far that when one of them was wounded, all the others came to his aid and saved it from being pulled ashore by closing a ring around it. Others tried to flip the bot. Some of them took up the rope or tried to pull the harpoon out of its body, and they actually succeeded in doing that several times. We also observed a male coming ashore two days in a row to see if his dead female was alive.”

The disappearance of this species resulted in the fact that the Commander Islands formed a complete thicket of large algae. Because of this, there was a stagnation of coastal waters, where single-celled algae multiplied, turning the tides red. Some of them produce toxins that accumulate in the organisms of shellfish and are then transmitted through the food chain to fish and seabirds.

Timiryazev State Biology Museum

Today, only bones, a few complete skeletons, and skin fragments remained from Steller's cows in the world. The Timiryazev State Biological Museum has a collection of bones (61 pieces), which was passed to its foundation in 1991.  The bones were found a year earlier in the bay of the Old Harbor on the Bering island. Most of them belong to a single specimen - together they make up an incomplete skeleton. In the collection, there are several images of the animal created by unknown authors as well.

Tarpan: little wild horses

Timiryazev State Biology Museum

Tarpans, which lived in the steppes and forests of Europe and Russia, are the extinct ancestors of the modern domestic horse. Tarpans were big-headed and short, with short, wavy hair and a curly, standing mane, like Przewalski's horse. Their colors were uniform: brown or dirty yellow, but there were also mouse-colored with a dark stripe on the back. The forest tarpans were smaller than the steppe tarpans.

This subspecies of wild horse was first described in detail by the German naturalist being in the Russian service, Samuel Georg Gottlieb Gmelin in 1771 in his work Journey Through Russia for the Exploration of the Three Kingdoms of Nature. But the tarpans began to be studied in detail only in the second half of the XIX century, when they already began to die out.

The main reason for the disappearance of the tarpan is considered to be the plowing of the steppes and the displacement by herds of domestic animals. Man also had played a hand in the extermination. Tarpans were killed for meat, which was considered a delicacy. In Central Europe, the forest tarpan was exterminated in the Middle Ages, in Eastern Europe - in the XVI–XVIII centuries. The last individual was killed in 1814 on the territory of the present Kaliningrad region.

Steppe tarpans existed in nature until 1879. The longest, they were preserved in the Black Sea steppes. A horse caught near Kherson lived in the Moscow Zoo until the end of the 1880s. And in 1918, the last representative of this subspecies died in the Poltava province. Today, his skull is kept in the Zoological Museum of Moscow State University, and the skeleton is in the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg.

In the Biological Museum in Moscow there is a printed engraving by the artist Nikolai Samokish ‘Tarpan, Wild Horse of Central Asia’. It was created as an artwork for the book ‘Horses (Horse breeds)’ published in short circulation in Paris in 1895. It also includes the works of the artist Narkiz Bunin. Together, the masters made 32 color artworks and 72 black-and-white ones - now they are stored in the museum's collection.

Moa: a huge wingless bird

Timiryazev State Biology Museum

In the collection of the Biological Museum there is also a picture painted in 1962 by Konstantin Flerov - the paleontologist and animal artist - in oil on cardboard. It depicts the giant moa birds, which became extinct in New Zealand in the 16th century. They were exterminated by the Maori tribe, who arrived on this land in the 13th century.

On the islands (New Zealand is located on the North and South Islands and the Chatham Archipelago) ancient fern forests grew, which were inhabited by giant moa birds. Their height reached four meters, and weight - 300 kilograms. The moa had massive legs, long necks, and no wings at all. Their closest relative is considered to be the tinamou birds, which live in South and Central America. They are about the size of a partridge and have wings that are almost never used.

Europeans have never met moas, only heard stories about them. In 1839, a large bone was found on the island, which was mistaken for a bull's leg. It was taken to England, where the famous paleontologist Richard Owen found out that it was the bone of a giant ostrich. After that, the remains of more than ten species of moa were found in New Zealand. In the middle of the 20th century, well-preserved skeletons of these birds were discovered some even with feathers, as well as eggs with embryos.

In the 1960s, some old Maori men told how they had taken part in moa hunting as children, and this gave zoologists hope of finding the giant bird in the forests of New Zealand. In 1986, a mummified moa leg was found in a cave on Mount Owen. It seemed as if the bird to which it belonged had only recently been alive. However, the research has shown that the leg is three thousand years old.

Slender-billed curlew: endangered or extinct

Timiryazev State Biology Museum

In the Biological Museum there is a stuffed small bird with a long slender bill - a slender-billed curlew. It came into the collection in 1962, and then experts considered that it was an average curlew, but later it turned out that it was still slender-billed one. This bird is listed in the Red Book as belonging to the first category of rarity and threatened with extinction. There is a possibility that this species has already completely disappeared. Its current nesting area is unknown. The last time a slender-billed curlew was seen, according to various sources, was either in 1997 or in 2003.

Curlews in Russia are also called steppe, or royal waders. The Latin name of the bird Numenius comes from the Greek word noumenius, that is translates as ‘young moon’. This reflects the curved shape of the nib that distinguishes all members of the genus. With the help of such ‘tweezers’, the feathered bird is convenient to probe the silt on the shallows in search of invertebrates.

The slender-billed curlew has earthy-gray plumage with stripes and speckles, the body length can reach 40 centimeters. The basis of their food spectrum consists of snails, worms, small crustaceans and insects. This bird has always lived in Western Siberia in peat bogs near the Ob River. Curlew nests were made in the ground, lining them with plants and twigs. Usually, the female laid four olive-colored eggs with brown spots there.

This bird is depicted on the emblem of the Union for the Protection of Birds of Russia. Not only this curlew specie is critically endangered. The swamp drainage, steppes plowing and other human impact on nature results in the fact that a rather vulnerable group of species is rapidly decreasing and may soon remain only on the pages of encyclopedias.

Source: mos.ru

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