Wondernose: What mammal has an inflatable nose?

by Kevin Shank | Mar 1, 2022 | 0 comments

“Elephant Seal!” you exclaim.

Well, good for you, Wondernose, you have come quite close. However, I wouldn’t really call an elephant seal’s nose inflatable. Mainly it is a very large nose which is sometimes puffed up like a cushion and which hangs down over the mouth. Obviously that’s where the elephant seal’s name comes from. The nose has a slight resemblance to the elephant’s trunk. But no, it can’t be inflated like a balloon. That feat is reserved for our mystery animal.

Let’s take a look at this animal’s hide. Usually gray in color, it has an interesting assortment of odd-shaped black spots scattered all over. The markings of the male are more distinct than the female’s. And, by the way, it’s only the males that have those impressive balloon noses.

The males are also much longer than the females. They’re around 9 feet long (3 m) and weigh up to 900 pounds (400 kg). Our mystery animal has no legs. Since most of its life is spent in the water or on the ice, legs aren’t really needed. Flippers help in locomotion both on ice and in the water. Yes, Wondernose, our animal is definitely a seal. Now let’s see if you can guess the descriptive part of this seal’s name.

Hooded seal
Hooded Seal. Photo © Dreamstime.com.

Our seal lives in an entirely different part of the earth than elephant seals, which are found in southern waters all the way to the Antarctic. Our mystery seal is a northern dweller with a rather limited range. In certain parts of the year, it is found in the Newfoundland area, but at other times it migrates to Greenland waters. These seals are practically never seen on land. Their babies are born on pack ice.

Birth usually takes place in March or thereabouts. These seal babies become independent very quickly. After only four days to two weeks on Mother’s milk (shortest time of all mammals), the pups are left to fend for themselves. They stay on the ice for another few weeks. Then they’re off to the sea—if they survive, that is. Polar bears like these seal pups for breakfast.

Guess what color the pups are at birth! Babies have a short-haired, silvery blue coat. At one time this blue coat was much sought after by hunters, no doubt because that blue fur fetched a fancy price. But to save these animals from extinction, hunting blue-backs was eventually forbidden.

Years ago the adult seals were also hunted—not for their fur, but for the thick layer of blubber underneath their skins. This blubber produced oil which had many uses. However, seal oil is no longer very much in demand.

Are you getting impatient, Wondernose? You think I should be giving more information leading to the discovery of our seal’s full name. In that case, we must take another look at this seal’s fascinating nose. It has very elastic tissue which the seal can inflate by blowing air up from its stomach.

When and why does the seal inflate its nose? Scientists aren’t entirely sure. Sometimes it seems they do it when they’re angry. Other times they’ll do it to attract a female or warn another male.

You ask, Wondernose, whether our mystery animal is called the inflatable seal. Well, no. That would be rather inaccurate, because it suggests that the entire seal gets blown up like a balloon.

Here’s a hint: When the nose is fully inflated like a bright red bubble, the seal appears to be wearing a hood. Correct, Wondernose. This is the hooded seal. Sometimes it is also called the bladdernose seal.

What do hooded seals eat? Guess, Wondernose. They live in the sea. Right—they eat fish and other sea animals such as octopus and starfish.

Like most seals, the hooded seal goes through an annual molt. Do you know what that means, Wondernose? Yes, the seals shed their coats and grow new ones. For the hooded seal, that happens in June and July. Though these seals are usually quite solitary, they gather in herds on pack ice for the molt. Do you suppose, Wondernose, that keeps them from being bored?

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