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.

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