A common complaint among certain segments of the Pokémon fandom is that the quality of Pokémon designs has declined since the premier entries of Red and Blue. These folks, dubbed “Genwunners” lament the likes of Vanillish and Honedge for their laziness in concept and uphold the First Generation as the pinnacle of Pokémon design.
Rebuttals have been made against this argument ad nauseum over the years and you can surely find them elsewhere for they are in no short supply. But perhaps no better example of First Generation oversights can be found than the Seal Lion Pokémon, Seel and Dewgong.
From the offset, Seel demonstrates the lack of thought given toward it conception, as its English name literally changes only one letter from that of the animal it quite generously borrows its design from. Its category name in the Pokédex—the Sea Lion Pokémon—is a misnomer too.. Despite having close relatedness and sharing many anatomical features, seals and sea lions are not the same creature. You can easily spot the difference by taking a look at its ears. If you can’t find them, you’re probably looking at a seal, as most “true” seals lack external ear flaps. Ear flaps present? You got yourself a sea lion. From a single glance at Seel it lacks the conspicuous ear flaps of a sea lion. Thus, however lazy its name may be, Seel is indeed a seal.
But at least seals and sea lions are in the same clade, a group organisms who share a single common ancestor. Along with the mighty walrus, seals and sea lions are grouped together in the clade Pinnipedia, pinnipeds for short. Seel would fit in nicely with other “poképinnipeds” such as Spheal (a slightly better name than Seel), Walrein, and the ever lovable Popplio. However, the same cannot be said for Seel’s evolved form, Dewgong, also erroneously categorized as the Sea Lion Pokémon when it is neither seal nor sea lion nor pinniped at all.
Dewgong is a dugong.
Again, such creative names from the First Generation.
If you’ve never heard of a dugong you’re probably more familiar with its close cousin, the manatee. Like manatees, dugongs are marine mammals that spend their entire lives in the water save when they need to breathe. Dugongs are typically found in the coastal waters of the Indian and West Pacific Oceans and graze on seed grasses, earning them and their manatee cousins the name “sea cows”.
These sea cows also have another name, sirenians, derived from stories of early sailors mistaking them for beautiful mermaids after months at sea without women. And who could blame them? Sirenians are majestic creatures.
But they are not pinnipeds. Not even close.
To understand why, you must learn the history of your mammalian ancestors and how they have made many returns to sea.
Throughout the history of tetrapods (four-footed animals), the return to the water from whence they came is a bit of a “recurrent theme” in their evolution. Ever since Tiktaalik pulled itself onland some 375 million years ago, the water has called us back home (like in Moana!) and many times we have answered the call.
The amphibians never truly cut their ties with the water, but the amniotes—birds, reptiles, and mammals—all have made treks back to the ocean in one form or another. Regarding us mammals, seven groups have transitioned back to water—cetaceans (whales and porpoises), sirenians, pinnipeds, an extinct branch of aquatic mammals known as Desmostylia, as well as polar bears, sea otters, and aquatic sloths.
While the the later lineages still retain most of their terrestrial features, cetaceans, pinnipeds, and sirenians are or are almost entirely aquatic in their lifestyle. Additionally, the rather astute student of biology may recognize many seeming homologies between these three groups such as modification of the forelimbs into flips. And considering that at one point all these animals were once fully terrestrial, one might assume that such a massive evolutionary shift could have only evolved once in the mammalian line. That these marine mammals form a single clade and share a single common ancestor from which they all descended from.
Except, they didn’t.
As best as we can decipher from the fossil record and modern genetics, marine mammals evolved the adaptations for marine life and made the return to water seven separate times.
The three most aquatic groups—Cetacea, Sirenia, and Pinnipedia—are themselves scattered across the mammalian evolutionary tree. Pinnipeds are nested within Carnivora, more closely related to cats and canines than they are sirenians, themselves closer to elephants and aardvarks.
For a better perspective of the evolutionary distance between Seel the Seal and Dewgong the Dugong, seals are more related to us than they are to dugongs (specifically, we share a more recent common ancestor with Carnivora as primates than Carnivora does with Afrotheria, the clade which sirenians are nested in).
In essence, when Seel evolves into Dewgong, it jumps branches on the evolutionary tree to an entirely different clade. It would be like if Pikachu evolved into Platypus.
That said, I have no enmity toward Dewgong. In fact, I have a soft spot for the Pokémon even if its name is stupid. We bonded during a playthrough of Pokémon LeafGreen. I traded a Ponyta for him on Cinnabar Island. Seelor was his given name. We swept through the Elite Four and he’s been with me ever since. We now explore the Alola region together. And sure he may not have the most original name or creative design, but those things don’t make me like a Pokémon. It’s the experiences we’ve shared that have solidified Dewgong as one of my personal favorites.
So love your Pokémon, regardless of whether they’re based on keys or cats or clones of previous Pokémon. For aren’t the experiences we share with them more important?
But for the record, Seel and Dewgong are still incredibly lazy names.
Accurate Pokédex Entries
Seel, the Sea Lion Pokémon: Despite being categorized as the “Sea Lion Pokémon” it is actually a seal as its name would suggest.
Dewgong, the Sea Lion Pokémon: Millions of years ago, its ancestors walked on land. Now, Dewgong can be found in oceans everywhere though they prefer colder waters.
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Uhen, Mark D. 2007. Evolution of Marine Mammals: Back to Sea After 300 Million Years. The Anatomical Record 290:514-522.