The Naming of Things: Bowhead Whale

aka: The whale who’s name I was the most wrong about as a child!

I have a confession to make. I’ve loved whales since I was four years old and I’ve spent a very, very large percentage of my life learning about them. That’s probably pretty obvious by now actually so no, that’s not the confession. The confession is this – for much longer than I care to admit I thought that the “bow” in Bowhead Whale referred to the kind of bow you find on a gift.

Now, to be fair, it’s not like I thought Bowhead Whales were swimming around in the Arctic with literal bows on their head (though someone please fanart that for me!) it’s more that I was young, I liked presents, I especially liked presents with bows on them, and so whenever I saw the word “bow” that’s immediately where my brain went. Ironically I was, and still am, also a big Robin Hood fan so I really should have put two and two together but I suppose I must not have been paying very close attention to any pictures I ever saw of Bowhead Whales.

I’ve maybe given the bit away there but yes, Bowhead Whales get their name from the bow that shoots arrows as opposed to the bow on your birthday present. Once you know this fact and you look at a side-profile picture of a Bowhead whale you will never NOT be able to see why. Their mouth is perfectly bow shaped. Katniss would be drooling if she ever saw one. Their mouth is also massive so it’s very fair that this is the feature they’ve been named after. They have the largest mouth of any animal in the world and it is almost a third of the length of their body. As they are a baleen whale, and a fairly large one at that, you may not be surprised to learn that they also have the longest baleen measuring in at over 4m or 13 feet PER PLATE! Their baleen plates are taller than any of the rooms in my house!

The Bowhead Whale’s scientific name, Balaena mysticetus, is all wrapped up in their baleen too. Balaena is one of the Latin words for whale but is also the root of where the term baleen comes from and mysticetus comes from the Greek mysta (originally meaning mustache but eventually used to refer to baleen likely because baleen could be seen along the upper lip of a whale like a mustache) and the Latin cetus (whale). So scientific namely speaking the Bowhead Whale is the baleen whale of baleen whales and I’ll just put a bow on that and leave it there for you.

We don’t have any Whale Tales about Bowhead Whales yet but we would love to hear about yours! Share your encounter about any whale, dolphin or porpoise here.

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