Wing-footed mammals

Greek mythology tells of Hermes, the high-speed courier who sported a set of wings on his heels and was very agile in the air. When in the water, however, Hermes had nothing on the creatures known as the wing-footed mammals: seals, sea lions and walruses of the suborder Pinnipedia. What is a pinniped specimen? "Pinniped," derived from the Latin words pinna (feather or wing) and pedis (foot), describes sleek hind limbs that have evolved into flippers. Pinniped specimens are on display in the "12,000 Years of Maine History" exhibit at the Maine State Museum in Augusta. The pinniped exhibit shows that marine mammal specimens can be used in this way to demonstrate the changes that occurred over the many years throughout the Gulf of Maine.

Chloe the Harbor sealHarbor seal. Photo courtesy of John Gomes and the Alaska Zoo. Archeological evidence indicates that once the Gulf of Maine was ice free, pinnipeds rapidly populated it. However, the species that populated the area in late glacial time (when the Laurentide glacier was retreating across the land surface of Maine) suggest sea conditions that were much colder than they are today. The Maine State Museum displays an example of a pinniped living in the Gulf of Maine during this period of glacial retreat. Walrus bones, including a remarkably preserved skull with tusks intact, can be seen at the museum as well.

Walrus SkullWalrus Skull. Photo courtesy of Maine State Museum. The Maine State Museum also exhibits an extremity bone of a bearded seal from about the same period as the walrus bones, and notes that evidence of this species has been found in Orrington, Maine. Today, in the Gulf of Maine, bearded seals are not unheard of; however, they are extremely rare. Currently, Atlantic walruses make their homes in waters around northeastern Canada and Greenland, and never venture as far south as the Gulf of Maine. The pinniped specimens currently on exhibit in the Maine State Museum clearly show a progression from colder-water species (walruses and bearded seals) to warmer-water species (harbor and grey seals) over the last 14,000 years.

Zoologists of the early 18th century reported occasionally observing walruses using their tusks as ice axes to haul themselves onto ice flows, and named the family of walruses Odobenidae. This word is a contraction of the Greek words odontos and baenos literally meaning "tooth-walk." The tusks on a walrus are its most defining feature, and even though they serve as great ice picks, they are primarily used by males to establish their place in the group hierarchy. Walruses are also known for having nearly hairless skin and thin blubber.

Bearded SealBearded seal. Photo courtesy of John Coutts. Walrus TusksWalrus Tusks. Photo courtesy of