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Reindeer or Caribou?  Dolphin or Whale?  What’s the Difference?

John M. Regan

                Fall is here and that means Christmas is not far behind. Soon be awash in symbols and images of the season.  In the world of advertising few animals represent the holidays more completely than reindeer.  But Santa’s antlered ambassadors look an awful lot like the caribou that traipse about the northern wilderness don’t they?  And come to think of it - porpoises, dolphins, and whales look a lot alike, too.  Is there a difference and what is it?  The world of wildlife is filled with many such similarities that we actually see or hear about every day, but give little thought – until some precocious offspring poses the challenge.  This article examines that critical issue.  Well, alright, perhaps it’s not exactly critical.  But won’t you look smart when you answer with great authority the question,  “Daddy, what’s the difference between a seal and a sea lion?”

Reindeer or Caribou?

                They are actually the same animal.  Caribou are members of the deer family; the only member of that family in which both males and females grow antlers.  The difference in the names stemmed from the native human population where they reside.  Northern Europeans and Asians who have been hunting and even domesticating these animals for many years call them Reindeer and even today use them to pull sleds.  Over here we call them Caribou, a Canadian French pronunciation of “kahlibu” or “yahlibu,” the label given to the animal by Native Americans of northeastern North America.

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        Caribou by John M. Regan Desert Hare Sea Lion by John M. Regan Harbor Seal by John M. Regan

From left to right:  A young caribou at the Alaska Zoo sprouts his springtime antler buds.  An eastern cottontail rabbit whose ears can't quite compare with that of the Afghan desert hare in the next photo. That hare, by the way stood about two and half feet tall.  Note the very distinct external ears of the sea lion compared with the small indentations seen just behind the eyes of the your harbor seal.

    Porpoise, Dolphin, or Whale?”

                Actually they are all whales and all belong to an order of mammals called Cetaceans.  Dolphins and porpoises just happen to be smaller.  In general dolphins have a beak like nose and are more streamlined in body shape than their porpoise brethren which tend to a blunter snout and stockier body.

Seal or Sea Lion?

                Although the common names are sometimes used interchangeably (the northern fur seal, for example is actually a sea lion) there are real differences in the classification of these Pinnipeds.  The best way to distinguish a seal from a sea lion is to compare the front and the back of the animal.  Sea Lions have external ears and are able to turn their rear flippers inward.  This allows them to propel themselves forward on land using all four flippers. Because of this ability they are the animals you nearly always see as performers.  The true seals do not have external ears.  They also lack the ability to fold the rear flippers forward, thus making progress on land difficult.

Rabbit or Hare?

                You might think this is just another example of a name simply based on size, but that is only part of the story.  It is true that hares and jackrabbits are larger than rabbits; their ears and hind legs are considerably longer and they tend to be longer and lankier in the body.   Another important difference, however, is one that most of us will never see.  Rabbits give birth to babies that are totally helpless.  They are born blind and naked; totally without fur.  Hares and jackrabbits on the other hand come into the world with eyes wide open and a complete covering of fur.

Groundhog, Marmot, Woodchuck?

                No other order of mammals boasts more different species than the Rodents.  From the largest rodent in the world, the one hundred pound Capybara of South America to the three inch Pygmy Jerboa of Central Asia, there are literally thousands of different species.  They take up volumes and volumes of zoological treatises.  Most folks have no trouble distinguishing beavers from porcupines or chipmunks from squirrels, but there is one particular rodent that does confuse people.  So let’s clear this up.  The Groundhog, marmot, and woodchuck is the same animal going by a different name depending on what part of the country you live in.  In the west and northwest they’re called marmots or  “whistlers” while out on the east coast folks called them woodchucks or groundhogs, especially on a particular day in February.  Marmots, Woodchucks, and Groundhogs are, surprisingly, members of the squirrel family.

Gopher or Mole?

                Although they share similar habits and habitats and both are the bane of proud homeowners and golf course caretakers everywhere, these are totally different animals.  Gophers are rodents and members of the squirrel family.  They exhibit the large pair of front incisors common to all rodents and are herbivores eating mainly roots and tubers.  In general they are larger than moles.  Moles descend from a more ancient line of mammals called insectivores.  Although they will gladly munch on a tulip bulb moles are mainly voracious predators primarily of earthworms.  Both of these animals are accomplished diggers, but those “mole-hills” you see in your front lawn are exactly that – the work of a mole.  Gophers push dirt out of their tunnels as well but in more of a straight line out of the tunnel instead of a mound.

Mouse or Vole?

                Now this summary is hardly the last word in zoological classification.  The zoological naming convention is a huge, ever changing, and often contentious world.  But the plain truth is that the vast majority of folks could care less.  They just want a straightforward, understandable explanation.  So the next time you’re confronted with one of those vexing questions that kids always seem to come up with you’ll have the answer.  Or better yet, ask little Johnnie first and provide the answer yourself.  Note the look of admiration in his eyes when you do.



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