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Lewis & Clark as Naturalists
The Collection: Species Details Lewis and Clark as Naturalists
Mammal    Species Name:
Phoca vitulina
Original name is Phoca vitulina Linnaeus, 1758.

Common Name:
Harbor Seal


Columbia River Narrows, Oregon
Narrows of Columbia river, 100 miles from the mouth
  October 23, 1805

Sea What?

If Lewis and Clark were more expert in identifying the members of one group of organisms over any others, that likely would be mammals.  After all, the Corps hunted mammals, and especially large mammals, for food and pelts.  So it is something of a surprise to read their account describing the first encounter with harbor seals below the great falls of the Columbia River.  They mistook these football-shaped aquatic mammals, weighing in excess of 200 pounds, for the slender sea otter, which weighs in at around 60 pounds.

The men were not so accustomed to sea life, and this mistake (later corrected) reveals much more about the challenges of discovering a new world than it does about the limitations of Lewis and Clark.  Although an account of sea otters had been published as early as 1757, most Eastern woodsmen would not have set eyes on that animal.  Anyway, who could have anticipated that harbor seals lived in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans?

For more information about this North American mammal, click here.

Journal Entries:

Although there is only one line in the long passage below addressing the harbor seal (Clark's sea otter) a more extensive excerpt is provided for ...  more>>

References Linné, Carl von, Systema Naturae per Regna Tria Naturae, Secundum Classes, Ordines, Genera, Species, Cum Characteribus, Differentiis, Synonymis, Locis, ed. 10, 2 vols, Holmiae: impensis direct. Laurentii Salvii, 1758

see following caption

See following caption
harbor seal

See following caption
harbor seal

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