Which whale is named for a noted biographer?


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The only beaked whale found in the waters off of Alaska, the Stejneger’s beaked whale is named for Leonhard Stejneger, who was the first to describe the species after finding a skull on Bering Island in 1885. A native of Norway who became a U.S. citizen and a curator at the Smithsonian Institute, Stejneger wrote more than 400 papers and publications, all but one of which was about nature. The only publication of Stejneger’s that wasn’t about science was a biography of naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller: George Wilhelm Steller: The Pioneer of Alaskan Natural History (1936).

From 1882-1883, Stejneger studied seals at the Commander Islands in the North Pacific near Kamchatka and Alaska. While there, Stejneger became mildly obsessed with his predecessor, fellow scientist Georg Wilhelm Steller, who had visited the region in his famous voyage from 1741-1742. During that voyage, Steller documented a new animal that was docile and new to world south of the Arctic Circle. Unfortunately, the animal – the Steller sea cow – was hunted to extinction within 30 years of Steller introducing the animal to the world.

Fortunately for the Stejneger’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon stejnegeri), the lives of Stejneger and Steller may be similar, but the outcomes of the animal’s they discovered are not. While the Stejneger’s beaked whale is not extinct, the exact population numbers are inexact because like most beaked whales, this species is skittish around humans and avoids contact. Exacerbating the research is the fact that the whales live exclusively in the Arctic waters around the Aleutian Islands, in the Bering Sea and Kamchatka.