Hannah Buckland

The scientific name of the walrus is Odobenus rosmarus, with rosmarus deriving from the historic Norse word for the animal, meaning horse of the sea.

Presently, the walrus is the only living species in its genus. When I read about its family classification, I see it's Odobenidae, which translates to those that walk with teeth. The book goes on to say the walrus is also the only living species in its family.

But sometimes, I read too many books at once, and the pieces become jumbled, and maybe it wasn't only the walrus that was without a family. From a biography about György Ligeti, composer, whose brother and father died during the Holocaust: In my early childhood, I dreamed once that I could not find a way through to my little bed [...] because the whole room was filled up by a fine-threaded but dense and extremely complicated web, like the secretions of silkworms, which spin silk around themselves as pupae to cover the whole inside of the box in which they are cultivated.

But about the walrus: Very few Renaissance scientists had the opportunity to study the walrus in person, instead centering its classification on the handed-down observations of explorers and sailors. Based on interviews with Dutch geographers, naturalist John Ray concluded in 1693 that the walrus, along with all seals, belonged under the heading quadrupeda vivipara unguiculata, multifida, carnivora maiora capite longiore, seu Caninum genus.

Another naturalist called the walrus a great marine fish.

Another believed it was a close cousin of the hippopotamus.

According to Dutch myth, the walrus was related to a fifty-foot long marine beast that used its tusks to impale sailors, but John Ray rejected this version of the walrus, stating his classification would rely only on the information provided by immediate witnesses.

Beside me, there were other beings and objects hanging up in the vast network; moths and beetles of every kind, trying to reach the light around a few barely glimmering candles, and big damp-blotched cushions, their rotten filling tumbling out through tears in the covering.

Originally, John Ray's rejections also included the whale. Even firsthand accounts were unbelievable. No creature so large could possibly exist.

The scientific name for the humpback whale is Megaptera novaeangliae. Translated from the Latin, megaptera means big wings. When the humpback whale breaches, it raises its flippers high in the air to heave about two-thirds of its body up, out of the water. Modern-day biologists believe this behavior is a form of communication among humpbacks: a percussive alarm call as the whale's body smacks the water's surface.

Each movement of the stranded creatures caused a trembling carried throughout the entire system, so that the heavy cushions incessantly lurched hither and thither, and so themselves caused a heaving in the whole.

Despite his initial skepticism, John Ray eventually became the first naturalist to recognize the whale as a mammal, not a fish. Almost two hundred years later, zoologist William Henry Flower confirmed John Ray's belief, noting several vestigial structures—reduced hind legs, undeveloped pelvic bones—linking whales to land mammals.

Now and then these movements, acting on one another reciprocally, became so powerful that the net tore in various places and a few beetles unexpectedly were set free, only to be lost again soon in the heaving plaitwork, with a stifling buzz.

The humpback whale, known for its elaborate songs, sings at frequencies of twelve hertz to eight thousand hertz. The fin whale, Balaenoptera physalusphysalus from the Greek physa meaning to blow, referring to the cloud of water the species is seen emitting from its blowhole—sings at twenty hertz. The largest mammal in the world, the blue whale—Balaenoptera musculus, which can be translated as either muscle whale or little mouse-whale—sings at ten to twenty hertz. Hearing ranges for these whales, all belonging to the Baleen family, are relative to their vocalization ranges.

These events, occurring suddenly here and there, gradually altered the structure of the web, which became ever more twisted: in several places there grew great knots that could never be disentangled; in other caverns, in which a few shreds of the originally connected plaiting floated around like gossamer.

One individual whale sings at its own unique frequency, always around fifty-two hertz. The only baleen that could possibly hear her song is the humpback, yet her calls remain unanswered. One article describes her as "the loneliest whale in the world."

Some biologists speculate that the loneliest whale is not a true baleen.

Others believe the loneliest whale may be the last surviving member of an unnamed, unknown species or the first member of a new branch of whales or a genetic fluke, a hybrid, a loner by design.

The transformations of the system were irreversible; once a state had been passed it could never occur again.

But about the walrus: The walrus is the only living species in its family. At least twenty other species of Odobenidae have existed, but now, they're all extinct with the most recent extinction occurring 300,000 years ago.

Etymology aside, the walrus shares little evolutionary history with the whale.

Modern biologists have used genetic evidence to prove one of the whale's closest living relatives is the hippopotamus.

In ancient Greek, the hippopotamus' species name and family name, Hippopotamidae, mean river horse.

There was something inexpressibly sad about the process: the hopelessness of elapsing time and of a past that could never be made good again.

When translated, the original Dutch word for the walrus is horse-whale.





Eventually, I would like to be able to answer a rhetorical question posed on page 263 of Brian Ogilvie's The Science of Describing: "How did the walrus fare?"

Ligeti quotations have been pulled from the following: Griffith, Paul. György Ligeti. 2nd ed. London: Robson Books, 1997.