Depending on who you ask there are 22 or 23 species of beaked whale on Earth and if you look at a picture of any one of them it’s pretty easy to see where they got their common name. Beaked whales are named for the prominent and elongated rostrums, or “beaks,” they all share.
These toothed whales belong to the family Ziphiidae and the family name also refers to their long beaks as it’s derived from the Greek word “xiphos” which means sword.
Within the family there are six different Genus’ so let’s make like a beaked whale and take a deep dive into the origins of these Genus names!
Genus Berardius, consisting of the Arnoux’s beaked whale (B. arnuxii) and Baird’s beaked whale (B. bairdii) is named after Auguste Berard. He was the captain of the ship that delivered the first Arnoux’s beaked whale skull to French zoologist George’s Louis Duvernoy who describes and named the species.
Genus Hyperoodon also has two members, the Northern Bottlenose whale (H. ampullatus) and the Southern Bottlenose whale (H. planifrons). This genus name comes from the Greek “hyperoe,” which means “the upper mouth,” and “odontos,” which means “tooth.” Interestingly, both of these species only have two teeth and both are found in their lower jaws. Learn more about these whales in our last Naming of Things blog!
Longman’s Beaked whale (I. pacificus) is the lone member of the Genus Indopacetus which roughly translates to “Indo-Pacific whale.” At least this one is closer to being correct, Longman’s Beaked whales have been found across the Indian and Pacific oceans including off the coast of Africa, Australia, Japan, and Mexico.
Genus Mesoplodon has the most members in the family encompassing 15 species of beaked whale. The name Mesoplodon comes from the Greek “mesos,” “oplon,” and “odon,” which mean “middle,” tool or weapon,” and “tooth” respectively. Taken all at once the name means “armed with a tooth in the middle of the jaw” and refers to the location of teeth in these species.
Genus Tasmacetus is home to the one and only Shepherd’s Beaked whale (T. sheperdi) and likely means “Tasman whale” referring to this species’ range through Oceania.
And finally, we come to Cuvier’s Beaked whale (Z. cavirostris), the sole member of Genus Ziphius which brings it back, once again to that ever-present beak and the Greek “xiphos” for sword.
Phew! Now you know how Beaked Whales got their name! Which is probably a decently large percent of what is known about them overall. Beaked whales are one of the most mysterious groups in the cetacean world. Though there are over 20 species, only 4 are reasonably well studied. Aside from their aforementioned “beak” the only other thing they all have in common is their amazing diving ability. Thanks to a number of physiological adaptations beaked whales are some of the best diving mammals in the world!