Wondernose: What animal is called gray, yet it may be black, silver, spotted—even green?

by Rebecca Martin | Jul 26, 2021 | 0 comments

These animals are big. Adults weigh around 600 pounds (270 kg), and they can be over 9 feet (3 m) long. As our riddle mentions, their fur can have some interesting markings. Dalmatian-like spots are sometimes seen on the necks of females. Males are usually dark-colored. And the cuddly babies are white.

You look astonished, Wondernose. So the idea of green fur has you floored? Well, but it’s true that in Canada some green individuals are sometimes seen. Let me explain, though. It’s not that the fur itself is actually green. For some reason, algae sometimes starts to grow on this animal’s fur, and that makes it look green.

Gray seal
Gray seal. Photo © Ian Dyball/Dreamstime.com.

So now you think this animal must spend a lot of time lying motionless. Why? Because in your mind, algae grows mostly on sedentary objects. True enough. And yes, our mystery animal certainly likes to bask on the seashore. They tend to live in colonies; if you come upon a basking group, they’ll look like so many fat humps scattered around the shore.

Walrus? Well, that’s a good guess. Our animal does resemble a walrus in some ways, but—okay, now you’ve guessed sea lion. You’re getting very close. But no, our mystery animal is not a sea lion because it has no outer ears. Sea lions have outer ears that you can see; our animal has ear openings, but no actual ears.

Ah, now you’ve hit on the right name. Our mystery animal is a kind of seal, and because of our riddle, you know the full name too—gray seal.

A gray seal is a very streamlined animal, just right for swimming. Not having outer ears is part of that streamlining. Ears sticking up from the head wouldn’t be quite as sleek.

The gray seal, then, belongs to the group called true seals. All of these are streamlined, with no outer ears. They’re superb swimmers. Their back limbs extend straight out behind them. They can’t rotate them forward to help them get around on land. Their forelimbs are also flippers that look rather like paddles. In fact, that’s what they’re used for—to help guide the animal while swimming.

By the way, I must correct myself. A true seal doesn’t really have fur. Its body is covered with short, coarse hair. As a result, true seals are sometimes called “hair seals.” No doubt you’re aware that up in the Arctic waters are seals called “fur seals.” Their soft underfur used to be highly prized for making clothes for people. Today, however, sealskin coats aren’t very common any more. Fur seals were being hunted to extinction, and that had to stop.

Getting back to our “true seal,” you are wondering how they manage to move around on land if their limbs are so well suited for swimming. They do have to get around on land, because that’s where the babies are born and raised. Well, I’m told true seals have strong belly muscles and can get around by undulating those. I’m thinking they’d be interesting to watch.

Gray seal babies certainly are interesting! Some people think the seal pups’ faces with their big round eyes appear almost human. They’ll look at you with a very appealing expression. Just like our babies, these pups will yawn contentedly when they’re well-fed. They’ll even suck on a flipper as they fall asleep—like a baby with its thumb in its mouth.

The thick white coat of a seal pup is very absorbent. For that reason the pups aren’t taken to water at first. Those “swaddling clothes” would fill with water and make them sink! But after a few weeks, the white coat is lost and the pup wears the gray of the adults. They’ve grown so fat on their mothers’ milk that they can live off their own fat for a while after the mother leaves them. But eventually they must learn to swim and dive to catch fish and mollusks.

It doesn’t take long till the pups are joining the adults out in deep water. Gray seals are good at catching conger eels and rock fish—two species that are hated by commercial fishermen because they prey on fish we like for food. But then again, commercial fishermen aren’t always pleased to see a colony of gray seals. They can be a pest for salmon fisheries, because they destroy nets and kill salmon.

Gray seals live in a fairly narrow range. They’re neither as far north nor as far south as the fur seals. In Canada, gray seals are found in places like the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Newfoundland. Across the Atlantic, you’ll find them near Great Britain. Deep waters and rough seas—those are home to gray seals!

Years ago, seal oil was very important for use in lamps. Many gray seals were killed, both for their oil and their meat. By the twentieth century, the gray seal was in danger of extinction, so laws were passed to restrict hunting. What happened next was predictable. Their numbers soared so fast that the salmon fishermen began to complain.

So the government responded by doing studies of the gray seal. They caught the cute white pups and tagged them. That’s how we found out that gray seal pups tend to wander a lot. Pups tagged on one British island turned up later on another. Some even wandered across the English Channel to Holland.

There’s one more thing I want to tell you about gray seals, Wondernose. The males have Roman noses! In other words, the bridge of the nose bulges outward. That’s why they’ve sometimes been called “horsehead seals.” These Roman noses distinguish them from most other seals, which have concave, dog-like snouts.

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