Jimmy Turner, age 12, of Randleman, North Carolina, for his question:
Is the sea elephant related to the whale?
The sea elephant is bigger than the dolphin and other small members of the whale clan, but he is not related to them. He has a trunk of sorts, which is why he came to be called an elephant, but he is not related to the elephant either. He has an alias that suggests his rightful position in the system of animal classifications.
The sea elephant is also known as the seal elephant and to the seal family he belongs. His rightful order is Pinnipedia, or fin footed animals. He is, however, a mammal and his so called fins are very different from the fins of the fish. A better name for them is flippers. They serve somewhat like specially adapted sea going arms and legs. Scientists suspect that his remote ancestors had the usual mammal type lees for walking on land. But ages ago, they left the land in favor of life in the sea. But to best survive in the water their limbs developed into seal type flippers after many generations.
The sea elephant is the largest of the seals and on land he is the clumsiest. A big bull measures 18 feet long and another 18 feet around his fat, blubbery body, and he weighs about 5,000 pounds. On land, or more likely on an ice floe, he props his bulging chest on his front flippers, holding up his massive neck which looks somewhat like a careless pile of used inner tubes.
True, the sea elephant is no beauty but he does have one quite astonishing feature a trunk type nose dangling down his blubbery face and over his mouth. However, it is not the same marvelous, handy trunk that belongs to the elephant. But nevertheless, it is a real trunk a specially elongated nose. And he has one good use for it. He can inflate it with air to a length of two feet, using this balloon to roar. It acts as an echo chamber, and his resounding toots and bellows can be heard at least a mile away.
This fellow is the Southern sea elephant, at home in the chilly ocean near the Antarctic. His cousin, the Northern sea elephant, is even heavier and about four feet longer. He still survives (in dwindling numbers) in the far northern Pacific and is found. as far south as California. Clumsy as they are on land, the elephant seals move through the water with grace and skill. Their back flippers are set close together and provide tremendous power for swimming and deep sea diving. In the depths of the ocean they hunt, preferably for squid and dogfish, and sometimes they even catch a small shark. Like all the seals, the sea elephant is a meat eater.
The female sea elephant is a little more than half the size of the male and she has no trunk. The mighty bull has his own idea about family life and this includes a group, or harem, of 12 to 20 wives. He selects a remote shore or ocean island and the young are born on land. Each mother bears a 2 1/2 foot pup and sometimes twins. In about six weeks the youngsters can swim and start finding their own food in the ocean.