Friday, January 30, 2015

Answer: Mapping the discovery of the sea cow and the blue jay

Steller's Jay.  Image from Bill Walker. 

Steller's sea cow (Hydrodamalus gigas).  Drawing by Georg Steller.  Image from Wikimedia.
This week's Challenge was to determine

1.  Are these two animals (the Steller's sea cow and the Steller's jay) named for the same person?  If so, who?  Whatever became of Steller?  
2.  I imagine that these animals were both discovered during an exploratory voyage of some kind.  Can you find out the name and organizer of the voyage that found both the Sea Cow and the jay?   
3.  Can you make a Google Map that shows the voyage of discovery wherein both a sea cow and a blue jay were found?  Ideally, your map would show the path the explorers took and have a couple of markers showing where both the sea cow and jay were discovered (as well as any other discoveries that might be significant).  

1. and 2.  Sea cow AND  jay named for the same person? Found on a voyage?  A:  Yes!  Two quick searches show us that they're both named for Georg Steller.  Wikipedia tells us that he was "Georg Wilhelm Steller (10 March 1709 – 14 November 1746), a German botanist, zoologist, physician and explorer, who worked in Russia and is considered a pioneer of Alaskan natural history."   He gave his name not just to the Steller's sea cow, but also Steller's sea eagle, Steller's jay, Steller's sea lion, and Steller's eider (smallish sea duck that breeds along the Arctic coasts of eastern Siberia and Alaska).  

Steller's eider.  Image from Wikimedia.

Steller's sea eagle.  Image from Wikimedia. 

Steller's sea lion.  Image from Wikimedia.  

Steller traveled to Russia as a physician arriving in November 1734. He met the naturalist Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt at the Imperial Academy of Sciences. Two years after Messerschmidt's death, Steller married his widow and learned from his unpublished notes about Vitus Bering’s Second Kamchatka Expedition.  Unfortunately, it had already left Saint Petersburg in February 1733. He volunteered to join the research expeidition and in January 1738 left to catch up with the group's planned exploration of the Kamchatka peninsula. He finally caught up with the main expedition in March 1740. 

Bering summoned Steller to join the voyage to the east in search of America and the strait between the two continents, serving in the role of scientist and physician.  The expedition's two ships became separated, and Bering's ship continued to sail east, expecting to make American landfall soon. Steller, reading sea currents and flotsam and wildlife, insisted they should sail northeast, making landfall in Alaska at Kayak Island in July 1741. Bering wanted to stay only long enough to take on fresh water. Steller argued Captain Bering into giving him more time for land exploration and was granted 10 hours. During this time, as the first non-native to have set foot upon Alaskan soil, Steller became the first European naturalist to describe a number of North American plants and animals, including a jay that became known as Steller's jay.  The first scientific description of the sea otter is contained in the field notes of Steller from 1751.

The sea cow described by (and named for) Steller lasted barely 25 years after it was discovered, a victim of over-hunting by the Russian sailing crews that followed in Bering's wake. In Steller's brief encounter with the bird, he was able to conclude that the jay was a cousin to the American blue jay, a fact which seemed suggested strongly that Alaska was indeed part of North America.

The expedition was a hard one, with many of the crew suffering from scurvy.  Although Steller tried to treat the crew's scurvy with leaves and berries he had gathered, officers declined his proposal. As a results, Steller and his assistant were some of the very few who did not suffer from the ailment. On the return journey, with only 12 members of the crew able to move and the rigging rapidly failing, the expedition was shipwrecked on what later became known as Bering Island. Almost half of the crew had perished from scurvy during the voyage. Steller nursed the survivors, including Bering, but the aging captain couldn't be saved and died from a deficiency of Vitamin C.

On the return trip, Steller came down with an unknown fever, and died in Tyumen, Siberia, trying to get back to St. Petersburg.  

3.  Can you make a map of the expedition?  

By reading this history of Steller and Captain Bering, it gives us an important clue: The name of the expedition.   It's not Steller's expedition--it's Bering's!

So I did a query for: 

     [ map Bering's expedition ] 

and found this lovely map of the entire expedition on the Wikipedia article.  (This is an excerpt of the entire 18th century map which is worth examining.  It is entitled The Russian Discoveries prepared by the London cartographer Thomas Jefferys. This is a reprint published by Robert Sayer in the American Atlas of 1776). 

I ALSO found an already existing map done in Google Maps:  Check out George Stiller's Map of Vitus Bering's Fatal Expedition of 1734.  Many of the icons are clickable and will give you more information about what happened at that spot during the expedition.  

AND Rosemary did this wonderful version of the map that she's given me permission to embed here.   (Be sure to click on the Anchor symbols for nice tidbits about the expedition.)  

I still wanted to find a high resolution map of the expedition, so I did another query:

     [ second kamchatka expedition filetype:kmz OR filetype:kml  ] 

here I'm using the more-or-less official name (in English) for the voyage, and I've added two filetype filters.  A KMZ file or a KML file are files for Google Earth.  I found a couple of them, downloaded them both, and opened them in Google Earth.   (The one I highlight here was created by Tom Kjeldsen in May, 2012.)

As you can see, this map fairly closely follows the The Russian Discoveries map shown above.

You can upload the Russian Discoveries map as a Google Earth overlay, and (within my limits of doing alignment), get something like this:

Or, you could export this to a KML file, and then upload this to your Google Maps:

This isn't a perfect answer to the problem, but there's a lot of good stuff here.  

Search lessons: 

1.  There are maps out there--search first!  

2.  Be sure to remember that Google Earth can import KMZ files and export KML files... which you can then IMPORT into My Maps to create a base layer of placemarks to make the map you really want. 

That's kind of a lot for such a "small" problem, but what a lot of fun!  

Thanks to all of the expert SearchResearchers out there.  (And  a special thanks to Rosemary for sharing her work.)  

Search on! 


  1. A couple of things I would like to mention. I imported the Google Earth kmz file into Fusion Table to see what the data looked like. Heres the link to the FT

    The results were interesting. I would suggest exploring the column & map labelled Geometry for some data not really obvious. Those familiar with using JSON may find this method useful (Geometry>Change). The results are automatically generated from the imported GE kmz file. Then you can import this file into MyMaps which means we can combine data from different sources to create really interesting maps. Had I been able to spend more time I would have verified the data provided and shown links & quotes for each icon.

  2. Based on the link provided above [Check out George Stiller's Map of Vitus Bering's Fatal Expedition of 1734.] I noticed the book which provided the background for the map. " "The Tracks and Landfalls of Bering and Chirikof on the Northwest Coast of America." by George Davidson. I located a copy at the Internet Archive
    It is filled with latitudes and longitudes of the Bering Expedition. This would be my go to source for a map.

    1. Thanks, Rosemary -- that is an excellent find. What was the query that led you there?