Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pilot whales: how many species are there?

Grzimeks encyclopedia from 1969 [1] contains a small section on pilot whales saying that the exact number of species is uncertain. Nevertheless, three species are mentioned according to geography: the common or North Atlantic pilot whale (Globicephala melaena), the Indic Ocean pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhyncha), and the Pacific Ocean pilot whale (Globicephala sieboldii).

The World Cetacea Database notes the species status of the latter (Globicephala sieboldii, GRAY, 1864) as taxonomically unaccepted [2].

Globicephala melaena and Globicephala macrorhyncha survived taxonomic evaluations and are commonly known as long-finned pilot whale and short-finned pilot whale. Note that the scientific name Globicephala melaena changed to Globicephala melas and Globicephala macrorhyncha changed to Globicephala macrorhynchus. Who said that a binomial term uniquely identifies a species?

The genus name Globicephala (“round head”) in different languages
Dutch: grienden
English: pilot whale
French: baleines-pilote (also: globicéphale)
German: Grindwal
Italian: globicephala
Portuguese: baleia-piloto
Spanish: ballena piloto

The Dutch and German names are derived from the Faroese language, in which the word grind means whale hunt.

By the way, pilot whales are dolphins, belonging to the Delphinidae family in the order Cetacea. Why not call them pilot dolphins?

References and much more

[1] Grzimeks Tierleben Elfter BandSäugetiere 2, page 503.
[2] Worl Cetacea Database: Globicephala sieboldii Gray, 1846.
[3] NOAA > Marine Mammals: Long-finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala melas).
NOAA > Marine Mammals: Short-finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus).

Monday, November 29, 2010

Largest animal on earth: the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus)

The blue whale is the largest animal on earth. It can get 100 feet long and weigh up to 150 tons (Discovery Education). Linnaeus constructed the scientific name, Balaenoptera musculus, from Greek and Latin words: balaena for whale, pteron for wing or fin, and musculus for muscle. Philip Hoare thinks that Linnaeus was joking, when he came up with this binomial term, since musculus can also mean mouse [1]. Well, mouse and blue whale differ in size, but they both are mammals, so there is some similarity.
Linnaeus was missing something else that names in “non-scientific” languages consistently point out—the color blue:

Dutch: blauwe vinvis
English: blue whale
French: balénoptère bleu
German: Blauwal
Italian: balenottera azzurra
Portuguese: baleia-azul
Spanish: rorcual azul

Since I have never seen a real one, I am not a good judge on the “color of the blue whale.” But pictures and drawings typically show a lot of grey and silver tones. I guess, the “real color” depends on the whale's age, its state of health and also on when, where and from which angle you are observing the true giant within its element. Linnaeus probably knew while he didn't include a color reference in the systematic name.

Keywords: cetology, marine mammals, taxonomy


[1 ] Philip Hoare: The WhaleIn Search of the Giants of the Sea. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2010; see page 84.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Big-headed blower: Physeter macrocephalus

Physeter macrocephalus is the the scientific name for the sperm whale. Physeter macrocephalus was one of the four sperm whale species that Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, thought to identify, along with P. catodon, P. microps and P. tursio [1]. Now they are considered as one species. The name Physeter catodon is still used as a synonymous binomial term. Another name for sperm whale is common cachalot. The word “cachalot” is of Romanic origin and means “tooth”, reminding us that the sperm whale species belongs to the cetacean suborder Odontoceti (toothed whales). In some Romanic languages the cachalot reference is present: The French call the sperm whale grand cachalot. In Spanish and Portuguese, the name is cachalote. Italians, however, refer to the big head; Germans and Dutch people to the big size. The English name refers to the cloudy, oily body liquid, which early sailors and whalers compared with semen.

Overview of names

Binomial name: Physeter macrocephalus
Dutch: potvis
English: sperm whale
French: grand cachalot
German: Pottwal
Italian: capodoglio
Portuguese: cachalote
Spanish: cachalote

Keywords: cetology, marine mammals, taxonomy


[1 ] Philip Hoare: The WhaleIn Search of the Giants of the Sea. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2010; see Chapter III The Sperm Whale.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Whales communicate by clicks, much as humans do these days. While the latter use the Internet, the former rely on underwater acoustics. There are plenty of sound waves beneath the surface waves of our oceans. (So, not all of them come from whales.)

Dr. Hal Whitehead is one of the great modern experts on sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and has studied sound patterns in the communication of these marine mammals. He found and listened to four different click types: usual clicks, creaks, coda sequences, and the mysterious slow clicks or clangs. As Philip Hoares reports in his book “The Whale” [1]:

Dr Whitehead organizes the sperm whale's clicks into four functional groupings: usual clicks, about two a second, made by foraging whales; creaks, a regular, more rapid succession of clicks which he describes as sounding like the rusty hinge on an opening door, and which indicate a whale homing in on its prey, or scanning other whales at the surface; the communicative sequence of codas - such as click-click-click-pause-click - a kind of cetacean Morse code which suggests ‘conversations’, although ‘we do not know what information is being transmitted’. Most mysterious of all are the slow clicks or clangs made by mature males and which Whitehead compares to ‘a jailhouse door being slammed every seven seconds’.

Sounds a bit like whale watching from Alcatraz Island.

Keywords: cetology, research, underwater sounds, sonar, communication, code decryption

[1 ] Philip Hoare: The WhaleIn Search of the Giants of the Sea. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2010; pages 76, 77 and357.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A big-winged New Englander: Megaptera novaeangliae

Megaptera novaeangliae is the the scientific name for the humpback whale. Philip Hoare—in search of the history of humans and whales—tells us that the humpback was given the nickname merry whale by hunters, who acknowledged the light-hearted appearance and playfulness of these marine mammals, making more gay foam and white water than any other [1].

The humpback is a baleen whale (Balaenopteridae) of the suborder Mysticeti in the order Cetacea. Humpbacks are often seen close to the coast and there are reports of river and harbour visits. They mate on the northern hemisphere in April and on the southern hemisphere in September [2]. The big wings, which gave this species its scientific name, can be seen when the giants breach by throwing more than half their bodies above the water surface.

Overview of names
Binomial name: Megaptera novaeangliae
Dutch: bultrug
English: humpback whale
French: Mégaptère
German: Buckelwal
Italian: balena gobba
Portuguese: baleia-jubarte
Spanish: ballena jorobada (see Good-bye whales!)

Certainly, the above list is incomplete since the humpback is also known in other languages. And synonyms and nicknames further enrich the lingua megaptera.


[1 ] Philip Hoare: The WhaleIn Search of the Giants of the Sea. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2010; page 25
[2] Grzimeks Tierleben Elfter BandSäugetiere 2, page 475 and 476.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

From Greek ketos over Latin cetus to the whale-contexting prefix

The Greek word ketos and the Latin noun cetos, derived therefrom, mean whale or sea-monster [1]. Various scientific terms, in use today, stem linguistically from these roots. Cetology refers to the branch of zoology that studies whales and dolphins. They are not considered sea-monster any more. In scientific classification, the term Cetacea denotes the order of marine mammals that includes the suborders Mysticeti (ballen whales) and Odontoceti (toothed whales).

In chemistry, the alkane compound hexadecane (C16H34) is also called cetane since some of its derivatives were first found in whale oil. The prefix cetyl is synonymously used for hexadecyl, CH3(CH2)15-, to specify a group or substituent with this constitution. The best known compound, carrying this prefix in its name, probably is cetyl alcohol, CH3(CH2)15OH, which is also named palmityl alcohol and 1-hexadecanol. The occurrence of the cetyl prefix in a chemical substance name characterizes a compound structurally, but does not relate to the “cetobiochemistry” of the compound.

[1] Michael Quinion: OLOGIES AND ISMSWord Beginnings and Endings. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2002.

Hell Town, a nickname for Provincetown on Cape Cod

Native Americans had live on Cape Cod for Millennia. When the Pilgrims arrived—in search for their utopia—they rejected the Cape as fit only for fish (cod) and heathens. Philip Hoare, not in search of utopia but for the whale, tells us that “Provincetown became an outlaw colony beyond their Puritan influence, a reputation embodied by its nickname: Hell Town.”

By the end of the eighteenth century the “town” was governed by piracy, war and revolution, but soon this port town became prosperous through cod trade and the whaling business. Cape Cod Bay, once a sanctuary for whales, was turned into their hell!

Keywords: history, geography, cetology, New England, Atlantic Ocean, whale habitats

Philip Hoare:
The WhaleIn Search of the Giants of the Sea. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2010.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The term “boar” refers to a wild pig species or a male pig

Wild boars are a European species of wild pigs, Sus scrofa of the Suidea family. The word “boar” is also used in generic terms for any kind of male pig. Remember, the female counterpart is the sow and the young ones are the piglets.

Wild boars are the ancestors of domestic pigs. Wild pigs and domestic pigs, the latter also known as domestic swines or house swines, can still interbreed to produce hybrids such as the ones gone feral in California [1,2], where neither type has been native. The wild boars were introduced in California as game species, while the domestic pigs came with the Spanish missions. They managed to intermingle—California-style—and the hydrids now roam the oak-tree hills and valleys in large numbers.

Wild pigs are not only surging in California, but also in their native landscapes like those in Germany. In German, wild boar is Wildschwein (note the similarity between the nouns swine and Schwein) and the male pig is a Keiler or Eber. Geographic place names such as Ebern (in Unterfranken) and Ebersberg (east of Munich) indicate human-boar interaction during history. It will only be a matter of time until California will have its Boarhill or Boarville community.

Keywords: Artiodactyla, mammals, sexes of pigs, hybridization

References and further reading
[1] Daniel McGlynn: Ground Invasion
Wild Pigs and Turkeys in the East Bay Hills. Bay Nature October-December 2010, pp. 18-22.
[2] Tom Stienstra:
California WildlifeA Practical Guide. Avalon Travel Publishing, Inc., Eneryville, California, USA, 2000.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Acronym in geography and transportation: BTK for Baku-Tblisi-Kars railway

In 2013, when the Marmaray railroad tunnel beneath the Bosporus in Istanbul is expected to be opened and construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) will be finished, passengers and goods can travel all the way from Baku to London and retour. The BTK will connect the capital and Caspian port city of Azerbaijan, Baku, with Kars in eastern Turkey via the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi.

In Tbilisi trains have to switch between Standard (1,435 mm or 4 ft 8 1/2 in) and Russian (1,520 mm or 4 ft 11 5/6 in) rail gauges.

The BTK is nicknamed “Iron Silk Road” [1]. It will connect the oil-rich Caspian Sea region with Turkey, bridging two regions with a population of mostly Muslim religions through Christian Georgia. Rich in history, religions, cultures, languages and natural resources, relations in this part of the world have never been easy—not only to be blamed on different track gauge systems!

Will the BTK forge a sustainable and more relaxed future for this European-Asian land of originality and diversity?

Keywords: Caucasus, continental crossroads, rail systems, engineering, traveling

References and further tracks
[1] Brett Forrest and Alex Webb: The New Silk Road. National Geographic August 2010, Vol. 218, N0.2, pp. 54-79. Council on Foreign Relations: http://www.cfr.org/publication/22731/national_geographic.html.
[2] Railway Technology: Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Line, International: http://www.railway-technology.com/projects/baku-tbilisi-kars/.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

German: Energiekonzept; English: energy concept

The German word Energiekonzept is composed of the female noun Energie (energy) and the neutrum noun Konzept (concept). Goal of the Energy Concept is sustainable economic growth based on renewable resources. The Energiekonzept is part of a long-term strategy towards renewable energy and less dependence on non-renewables such as foreign fossil fuels. However, the German goverment extended the lifetime of nuclear power plants by an average of twelve years. This Brückentechnolgie (bridging technology) also is part of the Energiekonzept. Critics argue against this energy-mix concept. Future profits of nuclear energy suppliers are supposed to fund research in clean and sustainable technologies—and zukunftsorientierte Energiekonzepte.

References and further reading:
[1] Annette Schavan:
Germany's Energy Research Plan.
DOI: 10.1126/science.1198075.
[2] Joachim Michel: Laufzeitverlängerung AKW - zum Energiekonzept der Bundesregierung.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ideagora, a marketplace for ideas, concepts and strategies

The Greek noun agora refers to a public place used by citizens of ancient Greek city-states to gather, socialize, debate and trade goods and thoughts. An ideagora is a marketplace for ideas, concepts and strategies. Ideagoras are not found in city centers, but on the Web. The term ideagora was coined by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams [1,2]. Ideagoras are digital marketplaces where questions or problems are posted and people are “invited” to answer or solve them. Ideagoras work by matching qualified minds to challenging tasks or vice versa.

Take a tour:
As a portmanteau of the words idea and agora, the term ideagora is catchy and descriptive at the same time. Synonyms? The phrases “eBay for innovation” and “virtual talent pool” have been used. Also, there are web sites that narrow the field of invention and innovation, such as Innopedia, a wiki for ideas in aeronautics and air transport. Lift your ideas into space!

References, details and more to explore:
[1] Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams: WikinomicsHow Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. Portfolio/Penguin Books Ltd, London, Paperback edition 2010.
Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams: Ideagora, a Marketplace for Minds.
[3] ιδεαgoras: http://ideagoras.biz.
[4] Look-up and how-to questions via information crowdsourcing?