The Naming of Things: Ginkgo-Toothed Beaked Whale

On the surface (under the surface?) the Ginkgo-Toothed Beaked Whale’s name seems very self-explanatory but that’s only if you know what a ginkgo is. Thankfully, we planted one in our front yard when we moved in and now it’s taller than our house, so I’ve had time to learn a little something about them. Bear with me, I’m going to talk about plants for a minute.

Ginkgo biloba is not beaked whale, or any kind of cetacean, it’s the scientific name of a unique species of prehistoric tree still found in some areas today. It has been called “one of the most distinct and beautiful of all deciduous trees,” and I have to agree. Large, flat heart or fan-shaped leaves can be found all over the tree, even down at its trunk, and they turn a gorgeous yellow color in the fall. I bet the leaves were a tasty treat for dinosaurs too as the earliest leaf fossils for this tree date back 270 million years ago. Though once widespread throughout the world the ginkgo tree is now and endangered species naturally occurring in only a small area of China (though it has been long cultivated in China, North America, and Europe).

What does this have to do with beaked whales? We’re getting there. It’s all in the name. The tree’s species name biloba comes from the Latin “bis” (two) and “loba” (lobed) – referring to the shape of its leaves. The genus Ginkgo is a different story and ultimately comes from a centuries-old translation error typo! Engelbert Kaempfer was the first European scientist to describe the species, in 1690, and he wrote down the wrong pronunciation of the Japanese the characters 銀杏, which is correctly pronounced ginkyō or in English, ginkjo.

So getting back to the ginkgo-toothed beaked whale (Mesoplodon ginkgodens) – it’s common name described the fact that it’s two prominent teeth are shaped remarkably like the leaves of the ginkgo tree. It’s pretty awesome. It’s species name ginkgodens basically means the same thing with “ginkgo” for the tree and the Latin “dens” (tooth). And, as you can read from our previous Beaked Whale Genus post, the genus Mesoplodon is derived from the Greek words “mesos” (middle), “oplon” (tool or weapon), and “odon” (tooth).  Collectively, this means “armed with a tooth in the middle of the jaw that looks like a ginkgo leaf.”

One other interesting fact about the very poorly studied ginkgo-toothed beaked whale is that, unlike all other known beaked whale species, these individuals have never been seen with the significant scarring that is common on beaked whale males, thought to be from male-male combat amongst the species. So maybe there’s something about that ancient calming tree energy going on there after all… 😉

Ginkgo-toothed beaked whales swim in tropical and temperate waters throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans and there is currently no population estimate for the species.

Though we don’t have any tales featuring this beaked whale species in our library you can read other beaked whale stories here and submit your stories about any cetacean species here.

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