Who Is Steller?

Georg Wilhelm Steller Biography

Steller's Jay
This striking jay is named for Georg Steller. Tim Lenz

Steller is an unusual name for a bird, not to be confused with stellar – star-like, brilliant or relating to astronomy. Birds known as "steller" have been named for a dedicated naturalist who rarely got recognition during his lifetime but today is known for his Arctic studies of the unique flora and fauna of tundra regions.

Name: Georg Wilhelm Steller
Birth: March 10, 1709, Windsheim, Germany
Death: November 14, 1746, Tyumen, Siberia, Russia

About Georg Steller

Georg Steller was a German-born naturalist, zoologist and botanist. While he was not strongly involved in the natural world during his childhood, he discovered his passion while studying at the University of Wittenberg and the University of Halle, at the same time he was also studying medicine. In 1734 he joined the Russian army for a brief period, serving as a physician. He also worked at the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, where he was a colleague of Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt, a naturalist and geographer known for his work on Siberian flora. Steller admired Messerschmidt's detailed journaling and thorough note taking, and adapted those techniques to his own observations.

In 1737, Steller married Messerschmidt's widow, Brigitta Messerschmidt, though the two would become estranged as Steller's work often took him far afield.

Steller participated in several expeditions exploring the northernmost parts of Russia, often traveling by ship as well as dogsled.  The most notable of these journeys was the 1741 voyage aboard the St. Peter under the command of Captain Vitus Bering, a voyage that intended to find a passage from Russia to North America. In July 1741, the ship made land at Kayak Island, Alaska, and while the crew took on water and what provisions were available, Steller made cursory but detailed observations for 10 hours. During that time, he documented several species that had been previously unrecorded. Among them was a dark, crested jay that bore a strong resemblance to the well-known blue jay of eastern North America. This similarity led Steller to believe they had, in fact, successfully found a route to North America, and the bird was later named after him. This brief exploration of Kayak Island makes Georg Steller one of the first Europeans to explore Alaska.

The return voyage was perilous, and at one point the ship was beached while the crew suffered from scurvy and other illnesses throughout the harsh winter. Steller took on a leadership role at that time and used his medical expertise to nurse the crew until such time that their recovery was sufficient to rebuild a boat and resume their journey.

In addition to his insistence on accurate and detailed notes for his naturalist observations, Steller was also compassionate and exhibited a strong belief in conservation. He abhorred cruelty to nature, and strongly protested the torture of foxes and other pests even when the animals were stealing irreplaceable supplies. He was also against the exploitation of native tribes, so much so that his protests against their treatment caused the Russian government to consider him subversive and he was briefly arrested. After he was released, he was traveling west toward St. Petersburg when he became fatally feverish. He died in Tyumen, Siberia, and a today a monument in a local park unobtrusively marks his death.

While Steller did write about his experiences and kept extensive journals and notes, his work was not published in his lifetime. His journals were useful to other explorers of the North Pacific region, however, including Captain James Cook, whose third momentous voyage was also seeking to find an oceanic passage around North America.

Contributions to Birding

While Georg Steller was not a notable birder, his naturalist work did have significant impacts on the knowledge of local avifauna.

  • First documented the Steller's jay, using its physiological similarities to the blue jay as conclusive proof of reaching the North American continent. The same expedition also recorded the now extinct spectacled cormorant (Phalacrocorax perspicillatus) as well as other birds and animals never before observed.
  • Published Beasts of the Sea posthumously in 1751, which included observations of numerous Arctic species that has not been previously documented or thoroughly studied. Among the animals recounted were sea lions, sea otters and fur seals. These detailed notes and journals would go on to influence other Arctic explorers, including birders.
  • Encouraged a conscientious approach to exploration and respect for native flora, fauna and populations, including conservation techniques and respect for local habitats.

Birds Named After Georg Steller

The greatest honor a birder or naturalist can receive is to have species immortalized with their names. Georg Steller may not have seen much notoriety during his lifetime, but his legacy lives on in the beautiful bird species that bear his name.

Unfortunately, both the Steller's eider and Steller's sea-eagle are vulnerable species with rapidly declining populations. Unless strong measures are taken to protect these birds, much of Georg Steller's avian legacy will be lost – just as the Steller's sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) has already gone extinct. His name may live on in other plants and animals, however, as his other namesakes include the Steller's sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus), hoary mugwort (Artemisia stelleriana) and gumboot chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri).

Photo – Steller's Jay © Tim Lenz