Category Archives: Old Stuff

Weddell’s Long-Necked Seal

From Weddell (1825).

Experts are not immune from making mistakes, even really bizarre ones. Ahem. Take James Weddell for instance, a keen observer of pinnipeds and other marine life (Fogg 1992) who somehow produced the monstrosity above. The intended subject isn’t any old seal, it’s a Weddell Seal (Leptonychotes weddellii)… mostly. The circumstances behind this illustration are vague and contradictory but Fogg (1992) reasoned it was based both on a specimen deposited in the Edinburgh Museum* and Weddell’s memory of wild seals, which may have conflated Weddell and Leopard Seals. It’s probably notable that Weddell referred to his namesake as a “Sea Leopard”.

* Now the National Museum of Scotland.

Weddell (1825) included a brief description of his preserved specimen from one Professor Jamieson who noted the “long and tapering” neck and small head, and argued that Weddell’s Seal had dentition distinct from a Leopard Seal’s. The following year René Primevère Lesson named the species “Otaria weddelli” from Jamieson’s description and Weddell’s illustration but not an actual examination of the specimen, which apparently means Weddell Seals don’t have a proper type specimen (Scheffer 1958). Nobody seems to know why Lesson classified Weddell’s Seal as a Sealion (hence “Otaria“) although I’d suspect it was due to the slender neck. So… what’s up with that mysterious neck?

From Hamilton (1839).

Hamilton (1839) described Weddell’s specimen as having a “proportionally very small” head and a “small, long, and tapering” neck, however the accompanying illustration makes it clear these traits are quite subtle, at least compared to Weddell’s illustration. Hamilton (1839) also took measurements — unfortunately “over the back” — but it’s still interesting that the distance from the snout to the base of the fore-flipper is 1.04 meters compared with a snout-tail length of slightly under 3 meters. It would seem remarkable for a “true” seal to have a head and neck length around one third that of the body, but in fact, it’s totally normal.

Weddell Seal in a more typical pose. From Richardson & Gray (1845).

Despite external appearances, seals and sealions have necks that are proportionally similar in length, although seals typically hold theirs in a deep “S” curve (Rommel & Reynolds 2002). I would highly recommend clicking on this link — the disparity between the external “neck” and the length of cervical vertebrae is truly astounding. As for why seals do this, it’s for “slingshot potential” to capture prey (Rommel & Reynolds 2002), so they’re apparently like snapping turtles, except they hide their necks in blubber rather than a shell. Anyways, Weddell Seals have cervical vertebrae that take up 14% of the vertebrae column (including the tail), and the series is slightly longer than the condylobasal length of the skull (Piérard 1971), so the proportions described by Hamilton are indeed plausible. The posture still seems odd — I can’t find any photographs of a Weddell Seal in such a pose — and I wonder if whoever mounted Weddell’s specimen did so Leopard Seal-style, since that species appears to hold its neck out fairly straight for a “true” seal. It would be interesting to see what the mount actually looks like, but unfortunately, I haven’t been able to track down any photographs.

Since I couldn’t provide a photograph of a Weddell Seal in a weird pose, this walrus will have to do:

From Scheffer (1958).

I can’t help but think of Parson’s long-necked seal and if that was another example of a specimen mounted with an extreme posture whose morphology was exaggerated even more by an illustrator. Curiously, some early workers considered Parson’s and Weddell’s seals to be synonymous (Hamilton 1839), but whatever Parson’s seal was, it probably wasn’t an Antarctic visitor.


Allen, J. (1905) The Mammalia of Southern Patagonia. Reports of the Princeton University Expeditions to Patagonia 3(1) 1–210. Relevant Passage.

Fogg, R. (1992) A History of Antarctic Science. Relevant Passage.

Hamilton, R. (1839) The Natural History of the Amphibious Carnivora. Available. Relevant Passage.

Piérard, J. (1971) Osteology and Myology of the Weddell Seal Leptonychotes weddelli (Lesson, 1826). Available. IN: Burt, W. (editor) Antarctic Pinnipedia.

Richardson, J. & Gray, J. (1845) Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Erebus and Terror. Available. Relevant Passage. Illustration.

Rommel, S. & Reynolds, J. (2002) Skeletal Anatomy IN: Perrin, W. et al. (eds.) Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals.

Scheffer, V. (1958) Seals, sea lions, and walruses: a review of the Pinnipedia.

Weddell, J. (1825) A Voyage Towards the South Pole. Second Edition Available. Relevant Passage.

Will New Whales Be Discovered?

Compared with terrestrial predators, the ~90 species of cetaceans (WoRMS 2012) ranging from wolf-sized to the largest animals ever, are a mind-boggling array. They’re the Pleistocene megafauna that, until recently, survived mostly intact (Anderson 2001) and no place on land, even Recent sub-Saharan Africa, can really compare with our oceans. It’s shocking that on top of this vast menagerie, one author claimed as many as 15 species remain to be discovered, including exotic beasts such as an 18 meter baleen whale with two dorsal fins (Raynal 2001). In a previous article I argued that particular hypothetical species, Amphiptera pacifica, was far more likely to be an early observation of (an anomalous?) Caperea than anything new and began to wonder if the discovery of unmistakable new species is at all probable. It isn’t.

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Giglioli’s Whale

After his lunch on 4 September 1867, the young naturalist Enrico Hillyer Giglioli observed a remarkable baleen whale with two dorsal fins far off the coast of Chile. Due to the unusual fins and an apparent lack of ventral pleats, Giglioli felt the whale was sufficiently distinct to name Amphiptera pacifica and hoped other, luckier naturalists would shortly acquire a specimen*. This never happened. The hypothetical whale is now almost forgotten, aside from being listed as a nomen dubium in databases, but there are still believers. Raynal & Sylvestre (1991) argued that Amphiptera is a valid entity, has been observed on multiple occasions and may be distinct enough to warrant its own ‘family’ (Amphipteridae). While some cetaceans can be surprisingly cryptic, the notion that one of the world’s largest and most unmistakable animals has almost entirely avoided human detection is a tough sell. Additionally, anecdotal evidence – even from experts – is notoriously problematic and cannot be used to describe new species. I’m just not satisfied with leaving Giglioli’s Whale as a nomen dubium, and I suspect the animal he saw was a remarkable representative of a rare, but known, species.

* Which has precedent with Lagenorhynchus crucigerCephalorhynchus commersonii & Sousa chinensisSee Dubois & Nemésio (2007) for why hypothetical descriptions are unacceptable today.

The critical information for identifying Giglioli’s whale comes from an illustration included in his 1870, which unfortunately is missing from the Google Books edition. The only copy I can find is from Raynal’s website, and while I can’t vouch for how well it represents the original, all the important details are reasonably visible.

Giglioli’s Whale bears an uncanny resemblance to Caperea marginata – which I refuse to call ‘Pygmy Right Whale’ because that name is the worst – specifically, a stranded 3 meter individual whose dissection was documented at Te Papa’s blog. Caperea was first described in 1846, however knowledge of its external appearance appeared to be quite rudimentary as of Beddard (1901). Giglioli was also only 22 when he observed the whale – having inherited the position of ship’s naturalist after the death of Filippo de Filippi (Croce 2002) – and didn’t appear to have a specialized interest in cetaceans. So not only is it unlikely for Giglioli to have ever heard of Caperea, even if he did the species probably would have been known only from baleen plates and ear bones at the time.


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