The Naming of Things: Blackfish

aka: The whales that are actually dolphins that are actually toothed whales, part 2!

Last year we tackled the age-old debate of “Killer Whale” vs “Orca” and in doing so we dug into the conundrum that is the toothed whale that is a member of the dolphin family but called a whale. But did you know that Killer Whales aren’t the only species of cetacean where this happens? There’s a whole group of dolphins that are called “blackfish” (and yep, you guessed it, they’re not fish) and every member of this party has to wear the “I’m a dolphin but they call me a whale” name tag.

Let’s dive a little deeper and give each blackfish-notfish-whale-dolphin-whale their naming due.

Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) – If you want to revisit where this all began check out our previous blog.

False Killer Whale (Pseudorca crassidens) – These dolphin-whales don’t really look anything like a Killer Whale if you were to see them in the ocean, but when they were first described by scientists, they were thought to be extinct. Biologists Richard Owen and John Edward Gray were using a skull that had been discovered in 1843 and was over 126,000 years old! Owen suggested that the skull looked similar that of the long-finned Pilot Whale, the beluga whale, and the Risso’s dolphin and Gray determined that it looked similar enough to a Killer Whale that the species should be assigned to the Orca genus. Eventually, when the False Killer Whale was discovered to be very much alive it was given its own genus and species name. “Pseudorca” comes from the word “Pseudo” (meaning false or fake) and “crassidents” means “thick toothed” so the False Killer Whale’s scientific name translates to false orca with thick teeth. Poor falsies – they’re their own species!

Pygmy Killer Whale (Feresa attenuate) – Not much is known about the smallest blackfish species, including where it got its name. Often confused for small False Killer Whales, it appears that this species’ common name comes from being mistaken for a species whose skull bears a passing resemblance to another species!  Even their scientific name was hard to route-out. There doesn’t seem to be any credible reference to the meaning of “Feresa” or “attenuate” but from our understanding of Latin “Feresa” may come from the inflection of “for” (meaning to speak or say) OR “fero” (meaning to bear or carry) and “ēsus” (meaning to be eaten). Attenuate may come from “ad” + “tenuō” (meaning to make thin). So without any real translation this name could mean “the speaker/carrier of food that makes you thin.” Maybe?

Long-finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala melas) – Long and short finned Pilot Whales get their shared common name from the belief that there was a pilot or leader leading their groups whenever they were seen travelling in the water. Then, obviously, the long-finned Pilot Whales have longer pectoral flippers than the short-finned Pilot Whales (a long-finned Pilot Whale’s pecs can be up to 27% the length of their body!). Oddly enough their scientific name has nothing to do with pilots or fins. “Globicephala” is derived from a combination of the Latin words “globus” (meaning globe) and “kephale” (meaning head) while “melas” is Greek for “black” so their scientific name translates to black globe-head.

Short-finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus) – Since we’ve covered the short-finned, pilot, and “Globicephala” parts of their name already let’s dive in to “macrorhynchus”. If you’re a biologist you’ve probably encountered “rhynchus” in MANY scientific names before as it means nose/snout/bill/beak and “macro” of course means big. So, the Short-finned Pilot Whale has shorter fins and its scientific name basically means big-nosed globe-head.

Melon-headed Whale (Peponocephala electra) – No surprise that the Melon-headed Whale was named for the shape of its head but the shape isn’t like that of a melon, rather it’s like that of the “melon” (en francais s’il vous plait) which is a colloquial French word for derby or bowler hat. In 1966 its scientific name was made to match its common name with “Peponocephala” deriving from the Greek “pepois” (meaning melon) and “cephal” (meaning head). There doesn’t seem to be any reasoning behind the species name “electra” but if you’re familiar with Sigmund Freud you may also be familiar with his Electra complex (which he named after Greek mythology’s Electra who killed her mother for killing her father) which is more commonly called penis envy. And we’re just going to leave it at that.

Credit: Uko Gorter

We don’t have a Blackfish category on our website but you can find the stories featuring these species under our Dolphin category! We have Melon-headed Whales, Pilot Whales and of course, over 350 stories featuring Killer Whales! If you’ve seen any of these species or any other cetacean we would love hear about it!


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