Name Games: Sea Lions and Sperm Whales

Combining my love of words and language with my love of ocean life often has strange consequences.  For instance, I happen to be fascinated with the stories and origins behind common animal names.  In fact, I’m so often asked for the reasons for animal names that I’m beginning to prefer that we only use Latin names, which if impossible to pronounce are at least easier to explain!

Take the species name for Northern fur seals for example: Callorhinus ursinus.  If you remember your trips to the planetarium as a kid the “ursinus” epithet should stand out.  Think Ursa major and Ursa minor.. the big and little bear constellation in our skies.  Yep, ursinus is a reference to being “bear-like”.  In fact, at one point Northern fur seals were known as sea bears! 

(Which must have proved difficult to distinguish them when polar bears were discovered.  Especially since their species name is Ursus maritimus.  Literally, “sea bear”!)

In the case of the Northern fur seals’ close cousin the California sea lion you might wonder how “lion” fits as their description.  They’re loud animals, sure, but their barks and growls don’t exactly sound like roars.  And while one male does preside over a large harem of females in rookery situations during the pupping and breeding season, they don’t exactly form up stable lifelong social units like prides.  So what gives?

Apparently the appearance of male sea lions, which have huge foreheads (called a sagittal crest) and very thick necks that protect them during territory sparring matches, led mariners to believe their necks looked like the manes of land lions. 

I can’t say that I precisely see the reasoning behind any of it but that’s the story behind the moniker.

There’s a somewhat amusing one for sperm whales as well.  Sperm whales were extensively hunted as an oil resource by American whalers sailing out of Nantucket and other whaling capitals in the 1800’s.  In these whales – like many other species – the forehead region (or melon) is full of lipids that allow for sound projection during echolocation.  The melons of sperm whales are enormous and the oils found in this region were the easiest source to extract.  Oil made from the blubber had to be heated and boiled down before stored in casks on board the vessels. 

Whaling crews were exclusively men; lonely men far from home without iPhones or Blackberrys to keep them entertained.  (Hmm.)  They called the oil from the heads of sperm whales “spermaceti” for its apparent resemblance to seminal fluid.  Gross, but true.  From that observation and description its an easy jump to their modern name “sperm whale”. 

Try sharing that at your next dinner party. 

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