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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Smart Stuff with Twig Walkingstick: See Cow? No, Sea Cow (for the Week of Jan. 18, 2009)

January 18, 2009

Q. Dear Twig: What's a sea cow?


A. "Sea cow" is another name for animals called dugongs and manatees. Like land cows, dugongs and manatees are big, peaceable, plant-eating mammals. Unlike land cows, dugongs and manatees live their whole lives in the water. Have flippers. And the plants they eat are seaweed.

So sea cows aren't really cows. In fact their closest relative isn't the seal or the whale but the elephant.

One kind of manatee lives in Florida. Maybe you know that. Maybe you've seen one. Yes? Yes? Lucky …

Not so lucky: The hugest, greatest sea cow of all will never be seen again. Steller's sea cow — 25 feet long, 8,000 pounds — went extinct in 1768. (A Florida manatee: around 10 feet, 1,000 pounds.) The last ones lived around islands in the Bering Sea. People discovered the islands, discovered the sea cows, killed them for meat, and wiped them all out. It took only 27 years.


P.S. The massive Steller's sea cow couldn't dive. It couldn't escape or defend itself.



Sources included "How the Great Northern Sea-cow Became Exterminated" by Leonhard Stejneger in The American Naturalist, 1887. (Great northern sea-cow being the Steller's sea cow's old name.)

Also check out Hans Rothauscher's excellent Steller's sea cow Web site,; and the FAQ page of Sirenian International, (Sirenians — "sy-REE-nee-enz"— being another name for sea cows, dugongs and manatees.)

Especially cool at that second site is a poster of Earth's four living sirenian species (all of them listed as threatened, however) alongside the way-bigger Steller's sea cow.


About This:

"Smart Stuff with Twig Walkingstick" is a weekly feature for children (ages 9+; 4th grade reading level) about science, nature, farming and the environment. Online at

Brought to you by your scientific friends at The Ohio State University — specifically, at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) ( and with Ohio State University Extension ( OARDC and OSU Extension are the research and outreach arms, respectively, of Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Written by Kurt Knebusch of OARDC and OSU Extension. For details, to ask Twig a question, and/or to receive the column free by mail or e-mail, contact Kurt at CommTech, 1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, OH 44691;; (330) 263-3776.


Kurt Knebusch