Whale Taxonomy

The term “taxonomy” refers to the study or science associated with classifying different organisms (whether plants, animals or human beings). In order to do this accurately, similarities between and amongst different species are taken into account. These similarities may range from their visible physical characteristics right down to molecular qualities that are not visible to the naked eye.

Because of this requirement, it is fascinating to study the taxonomy of various animals, as it reveals much about their make-up, history and origins.

Whales are part of the Cetacean order. This order also includes the other well-known marine mammals, dolphins and porpoises, and currently consists of about 80 different species. Cetaceans are under the super-order of Cetartiodactyla, along with the order Artiodactyl. Incredibly, the closes living relative of the whale is the hippopotamus (of the Artiodactyl order).

All Cetaceans are divided into two suborders; Mysticeti and Odontoceti. Mysticeti have baleen plates in the upper jaws of their mouths instead of teeth, which act as filters that sieve the plankton from the water for consumption. This plankton and, perhaps, other tiny fish make up the diet of baleen whales and they do not need to hunt for their food. Those in the sub-order of Odontoceti have sharp teeth, used for seizing and chewing prey. Cetaceans are characterised by their streamlined body shapes, which enable them to cruise through the water with ease. They have fins on the anterior and posterior sides of their bodies and have flattened tails that move up and down (horizontally), as opposed to moving from side to side like fish.

The whales that belong to the Mysticeti (or baleen) sub-order include:

* The Right Whales – these are made up of the Southern Right Whale, the Northern Pacific Right Whale, and the Northern Atlantic Right Whale.
* The Pygmy Right Whale.
* Rorquals – the Blue Whale, Sei Whale, Bryde’s Whale and the Northern Minke Whale, are all examples of this family of whales.
* The Gray Whale.

Baleen whales are sometimes called the whalebone whales or great whales, and the baleen plate is made from keratin, the same substance that forms nail and hair in human beings.

Toothed whales, or those belonging to the Odontoceti suborder, include:

* The Narwhal.
* The Beluga Whale.
* The Sperm Whale – this includes the Dwarf Sperm Whale and Pygmy Sperm Whale.
* Beaked Whales – there are 21 species within this category, including Baird’s Beaked Whale, Ginkgo-toothed Beaked Whale, Pygmy Beaked Whale, Stejneger’s Beaked Whale, Shepherd’s Beaked Whale, Southern Bottlenose Whale and Northern Bottlenose Whale.

Toothed whales are hunters and usually feed on fish, squid and other mammals that can be found sharing their habitat. Dolphins and porpoises are also part of this suborder.

Another sub-order is Archeoceti. As its name suggests, the members of this sub-order are all extinct, having lived thousands, if not millions of years ago. If we do not invest time and finances into education initiatives and the protection of the whales we have today, the same may very well happen to them.

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