The unlucky fate of 5 species named after this cursed explorer

August 4, 2016, 10:38 a.m.

The Steller sea lion is one of the largest pinnipeds in the world, with only the walrus and elephant seal ahead of it in size. These huge marine mammals — the males of the species can reach 11 feet long and weigh 2,500 pounds! — are found in the North Pacific, ranging from Japan to California's Central Coast. But their numbers mysteriously crashed in the 1970s, and they were listed on the Endangered Species List in 1997. They're still struggling to recover today.

This is just one of many species named after Georg Wilhelm Steller, a naturalist whose cursed life seems to have also cursed many of the animals he described for science. Out of six species of birds and mammals named for Steller, two are extinct and three are endangered or in severe decline, including the Steller's sea lion, the Steller’s eider and the Steller’s sea eagle. The Steller's jay is the only species that seems to have escaped the curse and is doing just fine.

Steller also described the sea otter, whose pelt became so valuable for the fur trade after Steller brought attention to it that the species barely dodged extinction at the hands of fur traders. The Steller's sea cow — a 30-foot-long species related to manatees and dugongs — was wiped out in less than 30 years, hunted to extinction to feed sailors and trappers hunting sea otters.

Steller himself had an unlucky time in life, first enduring a difficult journey from Russia to Alaska, landing in July 1741, and having only 10 hours to explore the Alaskan coast — though in those hours he documented an astounding number of species. On the return trip, the ship's crew was beset by bad weather, scurvy and a shortage of food and water. The ship foundered on what's now known as Bering Island, named after the captain of the ship, and they spent months shipwrecked.

Though he was a prodigious and talented naturalist, Steller died young, at only 37 years old, a mere four years after his trip to Alaska, without the respect he deserved and with many of his discoveries claimed by others.

Meanwhile, the species he described were left to handle the burden of being discovered by this very unlucky man.