If you read our ‘Whale of the Month’ series, or almost anything about cetaceans, you might notice that most whales seem to have... a lot of names.

Whales and dolphins are found all over the world, and each species will have about as many names as countries where they are found. As well as that, a lot of cetaceans will have multiple English ‘common names’ - for example, the common minke whale may also be referred to as the northern minke whale, the lesser rorqual, or, in the Southern Hemisphere, the dwarf minke whale. And that’s not even including all the former names for this species which have slowly fallen out of use.

You can call me the common minke whale, Northern minke whale, lesser rorqual, little piked whale, pikehead, or sharp headed finner!

All these names can be very hard to keep track of! This is where the ‘scientific name’ comes in – the two words in italics that often accompany the common name. Scientific names are usually derived from Latin or Greek, although nowadays other languages can be used too. The first word of this two-part name is the genus, and the second word is the species. To explain what this means, let’s return to our friend the common minke whale. The common minke belongs to the family Balaenopteridae – these are the rorqual whales. This family also includes the blue whale, the fin whale, and the humpback whale (among others). The scientific name for the common minke whale is Balaenoptera acutorostrata, which means that this species is part of the genus Balaenoptera. Fin whales and blue whales are also in this genus, so their scientific names start the same way: Balaenoptera physalus and Balaenoptera musculus, respectively. But the humpback whale sits in a genus of its own – Megaptera.

Scientific names can tell us a little bit about species’ taxonomy – that is, how they are related to other species – but with whales and dolphins it’s a little bit complicated. Most of these species were given their genus and family a long time ago based mainly on how they look, but looks can be deceiving! Modern scientific techniques that analyse DNA can find out how closely related a species is to others, but with new genetic evidence always coming to light, the arrangement of whales and dolphins on their family tree is constantly shifting around. So the humpback whale has its own genus, but according to recent analysis this species should actually sit in the Balaenoptera genus as well.

Despite being placed in a genus of is own, humpback whales are a closer relative of blue whales than fin whales are! Image from Wikipedia.

Now you know why whales and dolphins can have so many different names, let’s delve into the meanings behind some of them!

Whale or dolphin?

You may wonder why we call the largest dolphin in the world a whale. In fact, the term ‘killer whale’ probably started out as ‘whale killer’, which was given to them by sailors who saw these apex predators working together to take down large baleen whales. Nowadays, killer whales are commonly referred to as orca, from their scientific name Orcinus orca, and these two terms are used almost interchangeably.  

And if you think their common name is sinister, wait until you hear what their scientific name means! ‘Orcinus’ is Latin and translates to ‘belonging to Orcus’; Orcus was a Roman god of the underworld, so this genus name is yet another reference to the legendary hunting prowess of the killer whale. Scary stuff!

Named by whalers

Whalers are responsible for the common names of quite a few whales. There are three species of right whales: the southern right whale, the North Atlantic right whale, and the North Pacific right whale. These species are very big and very slow, with such thick blubber that they float when they’re killed and provide a large oil yield. Unfortunately, this made them hugely profitable targets of commercial whaling – they were considered the ‘right’ whale to hunt.

There are a few different theories about where minke whales got their name from. One story tells of a Norwegian whaler called Meincke who thought he saw a blue whale, but it was actually just a minke whale. Perhaps he was met with mockery after mistaking the smallest of the rorquals with the largest animal on Earth?

You are what you eat

Sei whales are the third largest baleen whales and a member of the rorqual family. Their name comes from the Norwegian word for pollock, because the whales arrive off the Norwegian coast at the same time of year as the fish.

It’s Greek to me

The scientific name for humpback whales is Megaptera novaeangliae. ‘Megaptera’ is derived from Greek and means ‘giant wings’, while ‘novaeangliae’ is Latin for New England – their name translates literally to ‘giant-winged New Englander’! Humpbacks were named this for a reason: their huge pectoral fins are proportionally the longest of any cetacean, and they are a common sight off the New England coast. Their common name in most languages (e.g. Icelandic hnúfubakur, German Buckelwal, Danish pukkelhval, French baleine à bosse) describes the characteristic hump of their backs as they set off on a deep dive.

Humpback by name, humpback by nature

Many beaked whales, members of the family Ziphiidae, are simply named after their discoverer, and Blainville’s beaked whale is no exception. This deep-diving species was first described by the French zoologist Henri de Blainville when he came across a small piece of jawbone. However, a closer look at their scientific name – Mesoplodon densirostris – reveals something interesting. The bones in their rostrum (the beak and jaw) are the densest of any animal!

As is the case for M. densirostris, scientific names very often describe something about the species. For example, the sperm whale has a remarkably large head that makes up a third of their body length! So their scientific name Physeter macrocephalus is entirely appropriate: ‘macrocephalus’ comes from the Greek for ‘big-headed’.

On the other hand, even taxonomists are not without a sense of humour. The blue whale was given its scientific name Balaenoptera musculus by Carl Linnaeus, the “father of taxonomy” and the inventor of the binomial naming system. Scientists still can’t decide why he chose ‘musculus’ as the species name, as it has a few possible meanings. One of those is ‘muscular’, which would certainly be fitting for the largest animal ever to have lived – but the other is ‘little mouse’! Now that would really be ironic... perhaps we should change the common name to match, and start calling this immense creature the little mouse whale?