Otaries

otaries

It’s funny how some words fall out of use when they actually do have some great clarifying utility.

One of the hardest concepts to understand is that the creatures we call “fur seals” and “sea lions” aren’t actually “seals” in the same way we understand harbor or gray seals.

In modern English, these animals get called “eared seals,” which is confusing term in itself. The other seals do have ears, of course, but only fur seals and sea lions have external ear flaps. The eared seals can also pull their hind flippers under their bodies and walk, while the “earless” seals are forced to drag their bellies around on ground with their front flippers.

We currently classify the earless seals as “phocids” (easy to remember if you know the French word for seal is phoque). The eared seals are called “otariids,” which is easy to remember if you think that otters have ears and these are the seals that are most like otters.

But I have wondered where this word came from. Obviously phocid came from Latin by way of the Ancient Greek word “phōke.”  I don’t see much use in using this word in English, though in the Romance languages, some variant of this word is the actual word for seal.

The name for the eared seals is otariid. If you know your Greek, ōtos means ear, and ōtaros means “large-eared.” Because these animals have external ear flaps. they have larger ears, which is also another way to remember the two groups

The French use the word “otarie” for these animals, and as I was going through some of the nineteenth century naturalist accounts of these seals, I noticed that an Anglicized word “otary” was used for them.

The term has since fallen into disuse, but it might be necessary to revive it. A fur seal or a sea lion really isn’t the same thing as a seal in my mind. They swim and move so differently that they really aren’t in the same ball park. To me, a seal will always be an animal made up of blubber into a sausage that can barely move on land, while an otary is an animal that can run and swim.

Using otary for these animals divides them better cognitively from the seals.

But then I don’t think most people would lose sleep over calling a sea lion a seal, even if it’s not really a seal.

The English language first evolved in a place where there are no otaries, but when these animals were noticed by English-speakers, there was attempt to classify them as being like the gray and harbor seals that they knew so well.

But I think this leads to a confusion of two quite different families.

Maybe this is me being a nerd.

But I think it’s time to use the term “otary” in our common language.

 

 

 

 


Natural History

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