A Whale by Any Other Name

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A new paper from the USGS and Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History documents some of the first scientific descriptions and names given to what are today known as the sperm whale and false killer whale.

You may have seen the news recently of a new species of whale discovered in the Gulf Mexico, named Rice’s Whale. It was identified based on the body of one that washed ashore along the Gulf Coast of Florida. While the population of these whales in the Gulf was already well-known, scientists had thought they were Bryde’s whales, a related species.

This is exciting news in the world of taxonomy, as the identification of any new species always is. And it has interesting echoes of other momentous whale strandings, such as the one that occurred hundreds of years earlier and half a world away, on the island of Sicily. Now, a new paper by scientists with the USGS and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History shows how, especially before the age of the internet and instantaneous global communications, the discovery and naming of a new species can be anything but simple.

Image shows a line illustration of a false killer whale

Illustration of a false killer whale, killed along the Alcamo coast in 1729. This illustration was included in Mongitore’s works and was used by Rafinesque as the basis for Delphinus dalippus Rafinesque.​​​​​​​ (Image courtesy of the General Research Division, New York Public Library)

The USGS and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History have had a long-standing partnership with regard to taxonomy and the species collections housed by the Smithsonian. These collections enable us to understand how differences in environmental conditions have changed where animal and plant species can be found; how wildlife diseases can affect humans and livestock; and even sometimes to discover new species. In this story, taken from historical records and archives, we’ll explain how two whale species almost ended up with different names.

Our story first takes us to the Mediterranean, where, prior to modern shipping and industrial fishing, many whale species were frequently observed. Just like today, these whales would also sometimes end up stranded on beaches, causing great fascination amongst locals. A few of these strandings in the early 1700s caught the eye of Sicilian Catholic cleric Antonio Mongitore, a writer more famous for his chronicles of Sicilian history and affairs of the Catholic Church. Mongitore’s interest in all things Sicilian though, meant that when whale strandings occurred on his beloved island, he paid attention.

Image shows an oval-shaped window with a profile illustration of a middle-aged man in a black suit

Antonio Mongitore, May 4, 1663 – June 6, 1743. (By Giuseppe Emanuele Ortolani - Biografia degli uomini illustri della Sicilia, ornata de' loro rispettivi ritratti, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61654438)

From Mongitore, we get some of the earliest descriptions of several whale species. Scientific descriptions of animals as we know them were still new then, and Mongitore’s narratives had details that we might be a bit surprised to see today. (Apparently the meat of a sperm whale tastes good, and the tuna in the belly of a false killer whale can be made into tasty dishes as well.) But the descriptions and accompanying illustrations were sufficient to give our next character, Constantine Rafinesque, what he needed to propose official scientific names.

Rafinesque was a naturalist, one of a generation of proto-earth scientists who took a keen interest in the natural world and tried to understand it in a systematic way. He was a contemporary of other well-known naturalists such as John James Audubon and Alexander von Humboldt. Born in Constantinople to a French father and a Greek mother of German background, he spent most of his time in Europe in selected parts of France, Italy and Sicily. While he was living in Palermo, Sicily in the early 1800s, he came across Mongitore’s work and decided to use the illustrations and descriptions to publish names for these species. At the time, there was no official listing organization or institution for new taxonomic names, nor even an agreed upon set of rules. Naturalists would simply publish a description and name and hope that enough people saw them and respected them to accept the name and use it.

Image shows an oval-shaped window with a profile of a young man in a white collared shirt

Constantine Rafinesque, October 22, 1783-September 18, 1840. (Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47347)

His work represented one of the earliest submissions for the sperm whale’s scientific name (Physeter urganantus Rafinesque), as well as likely the first-ever name for the false killer whale (Delphinus dalippus Rafinesque). However, it was ultimately not to be. Rafinesque’s work was often buried in obscure journals that were not widely disseminated. In fact, there is only one known original copy of the journal issues in which he published these whale descriptions. In addition, although Rafinesque’s submissions relied on Mongitore’s work and illustrations, his papers did not include the illustrations. The only place to see them was in Mongitore’s publication, which was hard to get outside of Sicily at the time.

As a final nail in the coffin for Rafinesque’s names, not long after publishing the work in which he proposed the names for the sperm whale and false killer whale, he set sail for the United States. As he approached New York City, the ship he was on foundered and sank, taking all of his notes, samples and possessions to the bottom of Long Island Sound. Although Rafinesque survived, much of his work was lost. He would soon turn his attention to the natural world of his new country, leaving his names for the whales to eventually fade into obscurity.

Image shows a line illustration of a sperm whale

Illustration of a sperm whale that stranded along the coast near Mazzara, Sicily, on November 20,1734. This illustration appeared in Mongitore’s work and was used by Rafinesque as the basis for Physeter urganantus Rafinesque. (Image courtesy of the General Research Division, New York Public Library)

Although this new research does not affect the taxonomy of the sperm whale or false killer whale, it is valuable for showing the Wild West nature of the early days of taxonomy. When it took weeks for letters to travel, and the security and even success of that travel could not be guaranteed, reaching consensus on the nature and name of a new species relied on luck as much as skill. As a result, taxonomy is littered with names that are doubtful or forgotten. Discovering how we got to where we are gives us a greater appreciation for how far we have come. As we celebrate Balaenoptera ricei, the new official name of Rice’s Whale, we should take a moment to remember some of those forgotten names of other whales too.

You can access the paper here.