Bill Long 4/5/07
From the 2000 Bee
Words come and go so quickly in the annual Kids Bees that you really don't have time to appreciate them unless you look at the list of words used and decide to do some work. And since many words open immense worlds, your view of the world is enriched by so doing. I would have spelled phocine correctly, but I never would have gone into their world unless I took the afternoon to study them. In short, something phocine is "of, relating to, or characteristic of a seal." The family is the Phocidae, and the subfamily the Phocinae, though the Wikipedia article on seals says that the Phocidae family has two subfamilies: Monachinae and Phocinae. I will not engage in taxonomachia here; I am interested in the beings and the words we use to describe them.
Well, they are in the Suborder Pinnipedia, and so I decided to begin with some work on that word. The Latin prefix pinna means "fin," while its near-neighbor penna means "feather" or "wing." Thus, something that is pinnigerous "bears" or has fins. Something that is pinniform has the form of a fin or feather. It is pinnate. We humans have a pinna, though most of us don't have fins. The pinna for humans is "the flap of skin-covered cartilage which forms the external ear..." Thus, it is the visible part of our ear-flap.
Though we have the word pinniform, the seal is actually fusiform, which means "spindle-shaped," or "tapering from the middle towards each end." I suppose that makes sense. The seals have fins, but they are not "pinniform." Their shape is fusiform (the Latin for "spindle" is fusus). To make matters a little more complex, however, we also have the word phociform in English. It means "resembling a seal in structure; having the form or characters of the Phocidae." However phociform really never caught on, though fusiform is doing much better, thank you.
In the history of taxonomy, at first the family Phocidae included not just the seals but also the walruses and some other sea creatures, but here is how modern taxonomists divide the world: SUBORDER Pinnipedia; FAMILY Otariidae--fur seals and sea lions; FAMILY Odobenidae--walrus; FAMILY Phocidae--seals. We have the English word otary, which is neither a notary nor a votary, which means an "eared seal (i.e., a sea lion or a fur seal); an otariid," so we see that the Latin classification has worked its way into our language. We see the word "ear" behind "otary," and indeed, Peron named the creature an otarie (French) in 1810 because of its distinctive auricle. The true seals don't have ears. Hence the distinction.
So, in order to know all the words there are to know, we must become comfortable with detailed scientific descriptions of things. The Century definition has the following. The Phocidae have "the body truly phociform, with the hinder limbs projecting backward, and not capable of being turned forward; the outer ear obsolete; the fore flippers smaller than the hind ones, and having the digits successively shortened and armed with claws...."
This web site says that the diverse group of seals contains 19 species in 10 genera. Members of the family vary in weight from about 200 pounds (small ringed seals) to more than 7000 pounds (male elephant seals). Their bodies are streamlined (i.e., "fusiform," since "phociform" has now faded out of our vocabulary); they lack an external ear; their forelimbs are short, less than 1/4 the length of the body. Their skulls lack postorbital processes (a bone situated behind the eye) and the alisphenoid canal is also absent. I really need to take some instruction in reptile or mammalian anatomy, but the alisphenoid canal forms the wing of the sphenoid bone at the base of the skull (something sphenoid is "wedge-shaped").
Dividing the Phocine World
We saw above that taxonomists divide the world of seals into 10 genera with 19 species. I compared two lists to see if 10=10 (indeed, one web site said there were 10 genera but then listed 13 of them), and here is what we have:
1. Cystophora (Hooded Seals)
2. Erignathus (Bearded Seals)
3. Halichoerus (Grey Seals)
4. Hyrurga (Leopard Seals)
5. Leptonychotes (Weddell Seal)
6. Lobodon (Crabeater Seals)
7. Mirounga (Elephant Seals)
8. Monachus (Monk Seals)
9. Ommatophoca (Ross Seal)
10. Phoca (Harbor Seal)
The other three genera listed in the article that says there are only 10 genera are: Pagophilus (Harp Seal), Histriophoca (Ribbon Seal), and Pusa (Caspian, Ringed and Baikal Seals). Let's assume that these are the types of seals we have in our world today.
Most of them live in different geographical regions. For example, the Leptonychotes live in the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. Named after British explorer James Weddell (1787-1834), the Sea is a Bay abutting the continent. The Ringed/Caspian/Baikal live, I bet you guessed it already, in the Caspian; the Pagophilus lives around Greenland, which you easily tell from its species name: groenlandicus.
Let's conclude with a few pieces of information about a few of the species. The word "Pagophilic" means "ice-loving," and I suppose if you are going to hang out in the waters around Greenland, you ought to love ice. But they are fascinating because they breed on pack ice. Terrestrial breeding seals have a long lactation, while the Pagophiles have brief but intense lactation (as little as four days). Thus, the pups can achieve "nutritional independence" before the ice shifts or melts. I love that phrase "nutritional independence." I can see using it for kids deciding whether to "leave the nest."
There has been a lot of publicity lately about the dangers seals face from hunters and others. After taking some time looking at their furry faces and seeing their sleek and beautiful bodies, I fully agree that we should do all we can to maintain their lives and prosperity. Apparently the species most near to extinction today is the Mediterranean monk seal (picture here). This is the Monachus monachus. There may be as few as 500 still alive.
In closing, I was interested that one of the species of seals is called Leptonychotes weddellii, which live around Antartica. They eat notothenid fishes (there IS more to learn, isn't there?). I was interested in them because I ran into the word weddellite in an earlier spelling list. Weddellite is a hydrated calcium oxalate which was first found in the Weddell Sea. The point with which I would like to close is clear--if we just knew enough, every word would be simple to spell...