MAMMAL NAMES | Living by the Sword:

The Sharp & Colourful Names of Ireland's Beaked Whales

The family name of the beaked whales in Irish seas, Ziphiidae, is derived from the Greek word xiphos, meaning 'sword'

Our exploration of the names of Ireland's mammals so far has brought us on a journey all across the island, meeting species that live in its forests, fields, and rivers, that fly through its night skies, as well as many that cruise through its waters in fish-like form. Of the latter, the whales, all of the species we have met so far have belonged to the toothed branch of the order, with all but the sperm whales belonging to families that comprise the superfamily Delphinoidea, the most speciose being the dolphin family, Delphinidae. However, there is one last group of toothed whales in Ireland's seas we must meet whose members at first glance also look a bit like dolphins but actually belong to a family that lies outside the great superfamily Delphinoidea – the beaked whales. No less than the other toothed whales they share Ireland's waters with, these cetaceans have a variety of interesting names, a number of which are notable for having intriguing martial connections.


There are over 20 species of beaked whales swimming in the world's oceans, making them the second largest whale family after that of the dolphins, who are far out in the lead with at least 36 species. Five species of beaked whale have been spotted in Irish waters, and, like the rest of their family, they have in general quite a dolphin-like form, but on closer inspection there are also a number of differences that distinguish them.


The most obvious of all these features is the one their common name derives from, as they all sport a distinctive beak. Indeed, the first of the martial connections in the names for the beaked whale family is in the scientific name for the family itself, Ziphiidae, which refers to this characteristic feature. Ziphiidae derives from the Greek word for 'sword', xiphos, and so this family name translates as the 'sword-nosed whales'.


And this connection is also seen in the species name for one of the most widespread forms, Cuvier's beaked whale, most European sightings of which have occurred off Ireland's wild west coast. This whale's scientific name is Ziphius cavirostris, the genus name Ziphius also being derived from the Greek xiphos, while the species name, cavirostris, also refers to the form of the beak or head, derived from two Latin words, cavus and rostrum, meaning 'hollow' and 'beak/snout', respectively. It is the Irish name that truly captures the form of the short beak in this particular whale, though. This is míol mór le gob gé, which translates as the 'whale with the goose's beak' (incidentally, it is from the Irish word for 'beak', gob, that the English word 'gob', meaning 'mouth', is derived).

Main Image: Illustration of Cuvier's beaked whale showing its distinctive goose-like beak from which its Irish name is derived. Top Right: Size of this whale compared to a 1.8-metre-tall human

As for the English name of Cuvier's beaked whale, this is derived, as you might guess, from the scientist who was the first to describe it – Georges Cuvier, the great French anatomist of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century who is sometimes hailed as the 'founding father of palaeontology'. Indeed, it was Cuvier in the early nineteenth century who proved that great giants which once roamed the Irish landscape, such as the giant Irish deer and the woolly mammoth, did not belong to living species but were species that had gone extinct. Up to this point, the concept of extinction had been strongly resisted due to Biblical teaching, as we saw earlier in the post on the giant Irish deer.


In any case, Cuvier's beaked whale is far from the only beaked whale in Ireland's seas that has an English name derived from the scientist that was the first to describe it. In fact, this is true of three out of the other four species, namely, Gervais' beaked whale, Sowerby's beaked whale, and True's beaked whale, named after another French palaeontologist, an English naturalist and painter, and an American mammalogist, respectively. The scientific name of True's beaked whale even records just how happy True was with his discovery of a new species, as he named this whale Mesoplodon mirus, with mirus meaning 'wonderful' in Latin.


But these three whales share far more than just the nature of their English names, as the other two also belong to the same genus, Mesoplodon, and this, like the names Ziphius and Ziphiidae we have already met, is a name which derives from the instruments of war.

Main Image: Sowerby's beaked whale, named after the English naturalist and painter who first described it. Top Right: Size of this whale compared to a 1.8-metre-tall human

Mesoplodon is derived from three Greek words: mesos, hopla, and odontos, meaning, in turn, 'middle', 'weapons', and 'tooth', and the word hopla will be familiar to anyone with an interest in ancient history in the form of the word 'hoplite' – those foot soldiers of Greek city-states like Athens. Thus, this genus name means, as it is translated in The Encyclopedia of Mammals edited by David W. Macdonald, 'armed with teeth in the middle of the jaw', referring to the single pair of teeth that protrude either midway down the mouth as viewed from the side or at the tip of the mouth and are usually only visible in males.


The possession of few teeth is, in fact, a feature of all the beaked whales, and when compared to some of their cousins in the dolphin family, such as the bottlenose dolphin or the killer whale, who sport full, gleaming sets of gnashers, they are very gummy, looking a bit like grizzled old prospectors in this regard.

Left: Replica of a hoplite. Right: Hoplites wearing armour and carrying swords and spears, together the hopla or 'weapons' from which their name is derived.

And it seems very suitable to view the teeth of the members of Mesoplodon as weapons, as, like most species of beaked whales, these teeth are used in battles between adult males, which is why their skins are often heavily scored with scars (as can be seen most clearly in the illustration of Cuvier's beaked whale above). In any case, the teeth are certainly one of the most important features of the beaked whales when it comes to identifying different species, as aside from some variation in size, beak length, and shape of the forehead, the body shape of these whales is quite similar.


Indeed, this use of the teeth as an identifying characteristic turns up in some of the Irish names and scientific names of two of the beaked whales of the genus Mesoplodon in Irish seas. For instance, the Irish name of True's beaked whale is míol mór gobach le clár fiacla, or 'the beaked whale with the flat teeth', while Sowerby's beaked whale has the scientific name Mesoplodon bidens, with bidens derived from the Latin words bi, meaning 'two', and dens, meaning 'tooth'.


If Sowerby's beaked whale has a very accurate scientific name, though, the same cannot be said of its fellow Mesoplodon member in Irish seas, Gervais' beaked whale. This whale's scientific name is Mesoplodon europaeus, as the first specimen to be properly described scientifically was found in Europe, and this name is echoed in the Irish term for this species, míol mór gobach na h-Eorpa, 'the beaked whale from Europe'. However, the truth is that this whale had strayed very far from its normal range in warm temperate and tropical parts of the North Atlantic and is thought to have been carried to Europe by the Gulf Stream, thus its alternative common name of the 'Gulf Stream beaked whale'. As of the year 2000, when the book Exploring Irish Mammals was published, only two specimens had ever been found in European waters, but Ireland can claim a special place here as it was in Ballysodare Bay in Co. Sligo that the only complete European specimen was found.


So, Gervais' beaked whale appears to be a very rare invader of the waters bathing the Irish coast. However, there is another beaked whale, the last we have left to meet, that although now referred to as 'relatively uncommon', has been spotted in many locations around Ireland. This is the northern bottlenose whale, which has the same general form as the other beaked whales that swim in Irish seas, displaying the same body shape with a dorsal fin two-thirds the way along its back and the beak its whale family is named for, but is also markedly different in some respects.


Perhaps the most striking difference in the form of this beaked whale compared to its other family members in Irish seas is the feature its English name makes clear reference to – its bottle-nose. The northern bottlenose whale has an extremely bulbous, almost vertical, forehead, very similar to that of the beluga whale we met last month. And its Irish name also makes reference to this particular characteristic, being míol bolgshrónach, which does not mean 'bottle-nosed' but 'belly-nosed', as we saw a few months ago when we encountered the Irish name for the bottlenose dolphin.

Main Image: Illustration of the northern bottlenose whale, showing that incredibly bulbous, beluga-like forehead. Top Right: Size of this whale compared to a 1.8-metre-tall human

One of the other most obvious differences between the northern bottlenose whale and the other beaked whales in the waters surrounding Ireland is simply its size, it being by far the largest. While the other four beaked whales can measure on average anything from four to six metres in length and weigh from 1.2 to four tonnes, with Sowerby's beaked whale and Cuvier's beaked whale each being twice the weight of the other two, northern bottlenose whale males measure around nine or ten metres in length and tip the scales at around seven-and-a-half tonnes, placing them in the same league size-wise as the killer whales.


But if we expected this greater size to equate to even greater levels of aggression, we would be mistaken, as the males of this species have fewer of the type of scars that are seen in other beaked whales. In fact, these whales are known to display caring behaviour, and when another member of their group is hurt they will remain with them or come to their aid. Of course, this brings us back to a point about the whales in general, that despite often being renowned as ruthless hunters or the scourge of seamen, many are very social creatures with deep and complex relationships within groups. And the beaked whales are no different. Despite the warlike nature of some of their names and some of their behaviours, there is far more to their lives than living by the sword.

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