The Naming of Things: Hector’s and Maui’s Dolphins

A decent rule of thumb when investigating the naming of things is that when a species’ common name is capitalized then it’s usually named after either a person or a place. So, in the case of the Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins this seems like an open and shut case: Some scientist named Hector discovered the Hector’s dolphin and Maui’s dolphins swim in Hawaii right? Wrong. At least partially.

Let’s start with Hector’s dolphins because they were, in fact, named after a guy named Hector – Sir James Hector to be exact. As it turns out, Sir Hector has lent his name to over 50 plants and animals! He was a Scottish naturalist who had a long and prestigious career as a New Zealand government scientist, and he examined the very first Hector’s dolphin specimen.

Hector’s Dolphin

Hector’s dolphins are the smallest species in the dolphin family and are only found in New Zealand waters. Sir James doesn’t only find his name in the dolphin’s common name, he’s part of the scientific name too, Cephalorhynchus hectori. To confuse this naming story just a bit though, there is not just one kind of Hector’s dolphin. The species is divided into two subspecies, Cephalorhynchus hectori hectori (so inventive) and Cephalorhynchus hectori maui – also known as the Maui’s dolphin.

Given that BOTH subspecies of Hector’s dolphin are endemic to New Zealand you may be confused, as I was, as to why one subspecies is named after a beautiful island in the Pacific Ocean. Or maybe you’re not, because if you’re familiar with New Zealand you may know that the indigenous Maori people refer to New Zealand’s North Island as te Ika-a-Māui and Maui’s dolphins are only found off the west coast of said North Island. So, you see, they really are named after a beautiful island in the Pacific Ocean! 😉

Maui’s Dolphin

Since we’ve uncovered the origins of their species and subspecies names let’s take one moment to translate their genus name. Cephalorhynchus most likely comes from the Greek words “kephale” and “rhunkhos” which mean “head” and “snout.” Hector’s dolphins have a very smooth slope from their blowhole to their rostrum and lack any sort of distinct melon so this is likely what their genus refers to.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into the naming of New Zealand dolphins as much as I have. You can read all our dolphin stories here and as always, feel free to share your encounters with any cetaceans here.

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