“Ironically, the only person who described them for us, Georg Steller, was also the only person who figured out how you could catch one and eat it.”

The tastiest extinct mammal

Most professors that I meet have done very unique things in former lives. Lorelei Crerar has done jobs from juggling to working a big car company in Vermont. I have a theory that these types of experiences make someone a better scientist, and maybe even a better person.

Lorelei studies an extinct mammal closely related to the manatee. We don’t see them around anymore because the guy that discovered them ate all of them with his friends to survive scurvy. I don’t know how she knows this, but Lorelei claims they are “apparently incredibly tasty.”

We haven’t seen the Stellar’s sea cow in decades. Lorelei still has hope. Sometimes during her free time she will look for them on Google Maps along the Aleutian Islands. They live very close to shore, so if they are still alive it is likely we would see them on the map.

Her brother stumbled upon a collection of 200 Stellar’s sea cow bones at a knife show. She’s using radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis to determine population size, the timing of the collapse and the identity of the bones.

Lorelei is one of the most unique characters I’ve met and I personally would love to have her as a professor. Here’s her story.

Cindy Wu: Lorelei, can you give us an introduction?

Lorelei Crerar: I am a term assistant professor at George Mason University. I’ve been going to the school for a very long time, but I started my PhD in 2007, which led to the job that I have now. I teach ecology. I started teaching at the high school level in 1993 and I started teaching at George Mason in 1997.

CW: What are some of the things you did before college?

LC: I worked on a lot of renaissance stuff that was across the country, doing different jobs, from juggling to selling whatever needed to be sold. That was kind of an interesting job to have. I worked for a big car company when I lived in Vermont which was fantastic. I’ve done just all kinds of weird things until I got into college and started teaching, in 1989.

CW: What made you decide that you wanted to be a geneticist?

LC: I actually went back to George Mason in 1991 to do a Masters in biology, and I took a few classes in higher level genetics. I really enjoyed those classes, and the professor was a fantastic person so I asked her if I could do a genetics project for my Masters, and if she would be my mentor. She agreed to that and I worked on manatee genetics for a while. But there are a lot of people working on it in Florida already, and so when I started my PhD I wanted to go in a different direction with genetics of Steller’s sea cow, a recently extinct member of that same family.

CW: Can you tell us two unique things about manatees?

LC: Well, most recently we learned that they have a strange blood system, where they actually store and use oxygen slightly differently than other mammals do. But they also have these very thick, heavy bones. So they don’t have any marrow in their bones. That’s true of all of the members of their family, including the Steller’s sea cow. One of the questions that I frequently get is why I don’t try to extract DNA from the bone marrow. Well they don’t have any, so it’s hard. Manatees are just a very interesting animal. They’re sweet and gentle, they like humans. They are really good for indicating how healthy a system is.

CW: Do we know why they don’t have marrow?

LC: We think one of their most ancient ancestors developed solid bones to be able to get under water. One of the very earliest ones in this group actually looked more like a pig with long toes. It was heading in the direction of having these solid bones. So it helps them to submerge. They have a really low metabolism so they spend little energy to do almost everything they do. They have a lung system that lets them go up and down in the water column and with the heavy bones they just kind of sink.

CW: So manatees and Steller’s sea cows both use that unique oxygen storage system.

LC: Well, we don’t know for sure. We hardly know anything about Steller’s sea cows actually. Europeans found them in 1741 and they were extinct by 1768. So in 27 years we ate them to death, basically.

CW: Wow, where did they live?

LC: The original population that Georg Wilhelm Steller found was right around Bering Island and Copper Island, off the coast of Russia. So they were out there. People thought that they may have lived as far north as St. Lawrence Island but we don’t know. I’m hoping to get evidence to confirm that with this project. My original research did give us hard evidence that they probably did live up far north.

This is an animal that’s 35 feet long. Apparently incredibly tasty. So the Russian fur sealers ate these animals while hunting for seals and sea otters. The meat kept really well. It had a lot of great properties for keeping sailors alive in the 1700s.

CW: Do you think if we hadn’t eaten them, they would still be around?

LC: Oh I don’t know. If we found them later? I think that given the history and the animals of the area, eventually people probably would’ve stumbled upon them because there were lots of fur seals and sea otters out there. And at the time, the Russian expansion was really keen on making money with fur animals. Getting the sea cows was just a great way to eat while hunting.

Ironically, the only person who described them for us, Georg Steller, was also the only person who figured out how you could catch one and eat it. His second expedition got marooned on Bering Island in the North Pacific in November. They were dying of scurvy and all kinds of other bad things. Steller was the one who helped them figure out how to get that meat. So without him we wouldn’t know anything about this animal, and without him they might still be there.

CW: Do you think there’s any chance that Steller’s sea cows are still alive?

LC: You know, I’d love to say that. I suppose the possibility exists. The Aleutians are incredibly difficult to get to, and very far out there. They’re not heavily populated. Every now and then I pull up Google Earth and look around carefully at the islands to see if I can see anything that might look like a sea cow. They should be fairly easy to spot, using those big beautiful Google Maps, because they’re big and we don’t think they submerge often, but just stayed at the surface of the water all the time.

CW: Do we know if they stay near the shore?

LC: Yes, they ate kelp right near the shore. They might be visible on good maps, so I look now and then!

CW: But manatees need to travel to areas that are warmer, is that the case for the Steller’s sea cow?

LC: It’s not. They are the only animal in the quite large family that didn’t need warm water. Steller did say that they got quite thin in the winter, but they were able to survive winter in that high north Pacific. It’s frustrating for us not to know a bit more about their physiology and how they could possibly do that when every other member of their family needs to be in warm water. It’s cold up there.

CW: That’s pretty incredible. Tell me more about the specimen that you have now and how you found it.

LC: Well, what I have actually is 200 pieces of bone. Most of them I believe to be ribs, but for some of them it’s very difficult to say because they are quite small. I want to figure out whether or not all the material being sold as Steller’s sea cow bone is actually real. In those 100 samples that we’ve typed so far, we found three that are not Steller’s sea cow bone. These are animals that are severely protected and are being sold illegally. So I developed a quick little test that will work pretty well and easily after you extract the DNA, which is pretty hard.

CW: So, if someone wanted to purchase Steller’s Sea Cow, can they go to eBay and search Steller’s sea cow?

LC: That is where I started actually! I was getting nowhere with getting bones from the Smithsonian, so I just started searching on eBay. I found people on several islands out in the Aleutians who were carving the bone. They called it mermaid ivory. The bone carves pretty much just like ivory does, and it looks similar in some ways, but a little more brown. That’s where I started.

Then in 2009, my brother actually called me, and said, “I’m standing in front of an entire box of Steller’s sea cow bone. Do you want any of it?” And I just about died. He brought me back a piece from a knife show he goes to every year. This material is so wonderful and beautiful, that it makes fantastic knife handles, so people use it for incredibly expensive handmade knives. So, I’ve started going with him and that’s where I got almost all my samples that I have, from the knife shows over the past 7 years.

CW: So you mentioned that you can get the DNA from these bones. Is it possible that you can sequence the whole genome of the Steller’s sea cow?

LC: Actually I had some people approach me after we published our first article who wanted to do just that. I don’t really have the facilities to be able to do a whole genome sequence, but I gave them some samples. I assume they are moving forward with the project. Maybe in a couple years we’ll see a whole genome sequence for Steller’s sea cows.

It would be interesting to compare it with the really complete manatee genome, and maybe we could figure out some of the weirdness about the sea cow that Steller had shown us.

CW: So you’re raising $2,234 to date the samples. What will that money go towards and how does the dating work?

LC: Well, all I need to do is just hack off a piece of the bone. Then I send it to one of the most respected labs for doing carbon dating, a company called Beta Analytic. They have the facilities to do carbon dating to a very fine scale, so down to even 10 years or so. They did the dating and the stable isotope analysis on the first bones that I had, which showed us that we had a population that wasn’t, in fact, from Bering Island. That was what I was hearing from the dealers, but we didn’t have any really good scientific evidence of that. It takes a little bit of time but there’s a lot of information that you can get about when the population may have been going extinct, where they ate, and things like that.

CW: So I just have two more questions that are not really related to this particular project. What is one piece of advice you would give to a younger version of yourself?

LC: I often feel like if I changed anything, I wouldn’t be where I am now, and I really like where I am now. The only thing in my research that I would have done differently is to be even more meticulous about writing everything down, explaining to myself everything that happened and why it happened. I find that when I go back in my lab books and I’m looking at something, sometimes I can’t quite remember what was going on at the time. So, taking good notes and writing things up is really important.

Publishing is a really hard thing to do. But it’s important to get good people to help you and publish. It’s very important, because my having this information doesn’t do anybody any good, besides me. Getting the information out there is the most important thing so that other people can use it.

CW: Yes, I definitely agree. So when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

LC: A jockey.

CW: Awesome. Those were all the questions that I had, is there anything that you wanted to add to the interview?

LC: I just want to emphasize that the other reason that I’m doing this, besides the Steller’s sea cow and how interesting it is, is that I have undergraduate students who work with me. Getting undergraduates experience doing research in the lab is really important. The most critical thing we hear from our undergraduates is, “I wanted to get this job, but I didn’t have any experience.” So even having a little experience in the lab, working on extracting DNA, is really helpful to undergraduate students. This is the main focus of what I do.

If you have more questions for Lorelei, you can ask her directly on her Experiment.

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