The Immersive Names and Forms of Ireland's Seals & Walruses
Fegaid úaib fo-thuaid See in the fish-flecked ocean
In muir múaid mílach Away to the far north east
Adba rón, rebac rán Where the happy seals are frolicking
Ro gab lán lined. Amid the full tide’s feast.
This beautiful poem by an anonymous Irish writer of the seventh or eighth century AD is how Hayden and Harrington begin their section on pinnipeds, the seals and walruses, in their wonderful book Exploring Irish Mammals. There is something magical about these lines, the author in so few words evoking an ocean bursting with life and capturing something of the nature and movement of the seals which inhabit Irish seas. But, of course, these are not the only words to perform such magic, and we need only look at the Irish, English, and scientific names of Ireland’s seals and walruses to immerse ourselves in their lives, forms, and origins.
There are three main pinniped species that either live around or visit Irish coasts – the common seal, the grey seal, and the walrus. These three sea-dwellers owe the name of the group they belong to to that most characteristic of features they all share, the flipper, with ‘pinniped’ meaning ‘fin-, feather-, or web-footed’.
In the past, the pinnipeds were often hived off into their own order, Pinnipedia, but now they are usually placed within the order they were always known to have arisen from – Carnivora. As we have seen previously, the order Carnivora accounts for a good number of the mammals in Ireland today, including the dogs, cats, and mustelids such as the pine marten, stoat, badger, and otter, as well as mammals which roamed Irish lands up until relatively recent times such as the bears. Indeed, it is thought that the pinnipeds arose from either some ancient bear or a superficially otter-like relative of the mustelids that split off from its carnivoran relatives around 35 million years ago.
Today, the pinnipeds amount to three families: Otariidae (sea lions and fur seals), Phocidae (true seals), and Odobenidae (walrus). Only the latter two have members splashing in Irish waters, the otariids never having colonised the North Atlantic.
The otariids are also known commonly as the eared seals, and the possession of external ears is one of the major differences between them and the true seals, none of whom sports visible ears, while true seals also differ in that they use their backs and hind-flippers to swim while the otariids use their front flippers to ‘fly through the water like a penguin’, as Hayden and Harrington put it. Neither can the true seals rotate their hindlimbs forward when on land, making them far less mobile than the otariids when out of the water.
The true seals’ family Phocidae is the most speciose of the pinniped families, with 19 species worldwide, seven of which are found in Europe. Of these seven, two are known to breed around Ireland’s coasts, the common seal and the grey seal, while two or three others may make occasional visits. In contrast, the walrus family, Odobenidae, is undoubtedly the smallest of the three living pinniped families, a once proud and widespread family that numbered around 20 species whittled down to one surviving member, the walrus of the Arctic Ocean that makes occasional visits to the Irish coast, most often in the northwest.
As the preeminent family of the pinnipeds, it is perhaps fitting that the Phocidae, the true seals, derive their name from the Greek word phoca, which simply means ‘seal’, and it is also the genus name of Ireland’s common seal, Phoca vitulina. However, unlike the genus name, the species name, vitulina, has a decidedly more land-bound derivation, meaning ‘calf-like’, coming from the Latin word for 'calf', vitulus. Indeed, the names of all of Ireland’s pinnipeds reference bovids or other terrestrial herbivores.
The genus name of the grey seal, for instance, is Halichoerus, which derives from the Greek words for ‘sea’, halios, and ‘little pig’, khoiros, making this beflippered coastal creature the ‘little pig of the sea’. Early descriptions of the walrus also compared these pinnipeds to pigs, not least because of their sparsely-furred and portly bodies, as well as their habit of huddling together. On top of all this, the males and females of all of these pinniped species are known as bulls and cows. And though one nod towards their carnivoran heritage may be found in the fact that the young of all three are known as pups, even here references to land-based ungulates are clear, the young of walruses also referred to as calves.
In fact, the very name ‘walrus’ itself may partly refer to one of the most familiar and best-loved hoofed mammals on land in Ireland – the horse. The origins of this word are somewhat obscure, and among the possibilities advanced for its origin is that it derives from the Dutch words wal and reus, meaning ‘shore giant’. However, generally it is thought that it may actually come from other Dutch words, walvis and ros, meaning ‘whale’ and ‘horse’, respectively. The Dutch word walrus, then, may be the inverted form of a Scandinavian term such as the Old Norse hrosshvalr, meaning ‘horse-whale’, which may have originally referred to the walrus but later came to refer to a fanciful sea monster. In any case, the Irish word for ‘walrus’, rosualt, is also thought to come from hrosshvalr.
As for the scientific name of the walrus, Odobenus rosmarus, this is far clearer in its derivation, at least when it comes to the genus name. Odobenus comes from two Greek words, odontos and baenos, which mean ‘tooth’ and ‘walk’, respectively, deriving from the habit of walruses to sometimes use their tusks as a fifth limb when they are emerging from the sea, stabbing them into the ice to help them haul their bulky bodies out of the water.
As for the species name, rosmarus, the derivation does not seem so clear. It appears to derive ultimately from the Old Norse word for ‘walrus’, rosmhvalr, and, in fact, some think that it was confusion between this term and hrosshvalr in the past that led to the latter word being linked with the walrus. In any case, some have detected a relationship between the forepart rosm- and a meaning of redness, and this may refer to an interesting aspect of the coloration of the walrus. When a walrus is overheated, either through exertion or exposure on land, its body pumps blood to its surface to allow heat loss and the skin looks very pink. However, when a walrus becomes cold, its skin turns virtually white as the blood drains away from the skin once more.
The walrus is not the only one of Ireland’s pinnipeds with a name related to colour, though, and both of its seals have names of this nature. Of course, this is most obvious in the English name of the grey seal, but also in one of its Irish names, rón glas, which means the very same thing. But the common seal too has an Irish name related to coat colour, rón breacach meaning the ‘spotted seal’. However, these names do not distinguish these seals from each other as much as they might suggest, as the grey seal also has blotches or spots on its coat which are even larger than those of the common seal, while the common seal ranges in colour from beige to dark grey.
There are, though, other marked differences between these two seal species that make them easy to identify, which are reflected in some of their other names. For instance, the alternative Irish names for these seals are rón mór for the grey seal and rón beag for the common seal, the former meaning the ‘big seal’ and the latter meaning the ‘small seal’, and there is indeed quite a difference in size between them. In both species, males are larger than females, and in the common seal bulls weigh 55–170 kilograms, whereas grey seal bulls tip the scales at 170–310 kilograms.
However, even the larger grey seals become dwarfs when compared to the walrus, bulls of which typically weigh 1,100–1,200 kilograms, but are known to reach an incredible 1,750 kilograms, making it the third largest pinniped on Earth. But even these marine goliaths become Davids when measured against the very greatest of the pinnipeds, the southern elephant seal, which is very suitably named, bulls capable of weighing a very elephantine four tonnes or more!
The names of the common seal and grey seal, then, refer to differences in size between them, but another difference in their forms is captured in the species name of the grey seal, Halichoerus grypus. Grypus, in Latin, means ‘hook-nosed’, and this name refers to the kind of ‘Roman nose’ that this seal has when its long snout is seen in profile, which is quite different to that of the common seal, which has a turned-up nose on its short-snouted, dog-like face. However, as grey seals only fully acquire this aquiline snout when they become adults, young ones can still sometimes be confused with common seals.
There is one last difference between the grey seal and the common seal that is referred to by one of their names, but in our current age it no longer holds true. Up to the start of the nineteenth century, the common seal was indeed the more common of these two species of seal and the grey seal was relatively rare, but since then the numbers of the latter have increased while those of the former have remained pretty steady or declined, leading to the situation today where the grey seal is the more numerous, the more common, of the two. However, it is still the common seal that you will more likely see in sea loughs or estuaries, and this is why it is also known by the alternative name, the harbour seal.
Indeed, it is when basking on land in estuaries and sandbanks that the common seal brings home to us the true nature of all pinnipeds. When doing this, it often adopts a shape like a banana, holding up its head and flippers to keep them clear of wet sand, the very land itself being something to avoid. This reminds us that even though the pinnipeds are amphibious rather than fully aquatic, still needing to return to land or ice to breed, it is the water that is undoubtedly their true home, and where the wonderful fin-feet which so encumber them on land transform them into zooming marine maestros. It is in the ‘fish-flecked ocean’, then, that they have evolved to become most happy, ‘frolicking amid the full tide’s feast’.