The Naming of Things: Humpback Whale vs Humpback Dolphin

One of the most well known facts about cetaceans is that the Humpback whale was named after the hump on its back, in front of its dorsal fin, which is accentuated when preparing for a deep dive.

Its Genus name, Genus Megaptera, comes from the Greek “mega,” which means “large,” and “pteron,” which means “wing.” This refers to its wing-like pectoral fins which can be as long as one-third of its body length.

These names both seem pretty self-explanatory but the Humpback whales species name, M. novaeangliae, has a much more convoluted origin. The humpback whale was first identified in 1756 as the “baleine de la Nouvelle Angleterre” (whale from New England) by French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson. Then, in 1781, German zoologist Georg Heinrich Borowski officially described the species and translated Brisson’s French name to Latin, Balaena novaeangliae. But wait – there’s more! In 1846, British zoologist John Edward Gray created the genus Megaptera, classifying the humpback as Megaptera longipinna, this species name coming from the Latin for “long fin”. And finally, in 1932, American naturalist Remington Kellogg (who has a great name all his own!) decided to revert the species names back to novaeangliae. That was a long and winding road back to New England.

Photo by Whale Watch Western Australia

Humpback whales aren’t the only cetaceans with, and named, for their humps. Genetic analysis is still trying to determine whether there are two or four distinct separate species of Humpback dolphin but everyone can agree that they were named for the predominant humps found on their backs.  They are found along the coast of West Africa, along the coast of South Africa to Australia in the Indian Ocean and in Asia (locally known as Chinese White Dolphins just to make the names a bit more confusing!). Out of the four potential species, two are listed as endangered and the others are listed as vulnerable, with pollution, boat noise and harmful fishing methods listed as some the issues causing population declines in these species.

You can read allllllll our Humpback stories here (there are a LOT!) and, as always, if you have a story to share about any cetacean, you can submit it here

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