The nomenclatural status of the Alula whale

Alula whale

Willem Mörzer Bruyns’ illustration of the Alula whale, from Mörzer Bruyns (1971).

The Alula whale is an unconfirmed species first reported by Dutch sea captain and historian Willem Mörzer Bruyns (Mörzer Bruyns, 1971). It is named after the coastal town of Alula, Somalia, which is near where some of the sightings occurred. According to Mörzer Bruyns, he saw this whale on multiple occasions prior to 1971 (no dates specified) in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean from Alula to the island of Socotra. He described it as being similar in appearance to orcas (Orcinus orca) and pilot whales (Globicephala spp.) with a rounded head, short snout, and tall dorsal fin. However, it notably differed in that its coloration was uniformly sepia brown with no markings except for white, star-shaped scars on its flanks. It was estimated to be 20-24 feet (6.1-7.3 meters) long and it traveled in pods of 4-8 individuals, which were observed chasing smaller dolphins. Another sighting of a single individual happened in 1987 in the open Indian Ocean much further to the southeast (Tibbott, 1988).

Although no physical specimens have been recovered, the Alula whale has still received a scientific name. Heintzelman (1981) named it Orcinus mörzer-bruynsus based only on Mörzer Bruyns’ description. It has mostly been ignored in the scientific literature, but Jefferson (2021) recently discussed its status in regards to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN, 1999). Unfortunately, he made incorrect claims that are worth addressing here.

“These animals were later designated with the name Orcinus mörzer-bruynsus by Heintzelman (1981), which would be amended to Orcinus moerzerbruynsus.”

Jefferson is correct that the name needs to be emended, as Article 32.5.2 of the Code dictates that hyphens and accented characters are not allowed. However, his proposed spelling is wrong because the “ö” should be changed to an “o”, not an “oe”. “ö” is only changed to “oe” if the name is German and published before 1985, otherwise it is changed to “o” following Article 32.5.2.1. Since Mörzer Bruyns is a Dutch name, the proper spelling is morzerbruynsus.

“However, since there was no formal designation of a name-bearing type, and the name was not accompanied by a formal designation as a new species, it does not subscribe to ICZN rules, and therefore the name is not available.”

It is true that Articles 16.1 and 16.4 of the Code require explicit designations that a species is new and of its type specimen(s). It is also true that Heintzelman’s naming lacks these designations. Yet, these articles only apply to names published after 1999, so they are irrelevant to this case. Thus, O. morzerbruynsus is not an unavailable name for the reasons that Jefferson states. The question remains if it is unavailable for other reasons.

O. morzerbruynsus meets all the requirements of Articles 11 (all names) and 15 (names after 1960) to be available. Article 13 (names after 1930), specifically Articles 13.1.1 and 13.1.2, is where there is some ambiguity. These articles require a description or diagnosis that intends to distinguish the species or an explicit reference to a previously-published description or diagnosis. While Heintzelman did have a description listing the unique characters of the Alula whale, it was technically not compared with other taxa to differentiate it. It could be argued that merely by naming a new species it was implied to be distinguished from others, but that is a subjective interpretation.

“Description: A sepia brown Orcinus whale with a well-rounded forehead and white, star-like scars on the body. The dorsal fin, about 2 feet (0.6 meters) high, is prominent and often protrudes well above the surface of the water. This species was discussed and illustrated for the first time, but not formally named, by W.F.J. Mörzer Bruyns in Field Guide of Whales and Dolphins.”

More definitive is Heintzelman’s mention of Mörzer Bruyns’ original description, which did actually compare the Alula whale with other taxa. This is a reference to a previously-published description or diagnosis, so it makes O. morzerbruynsus an available name.  

“Special features: A rounded forehead, similar but not quite as round as in Globicephala. A little snout. The dorsal fin was estimated to be at least 2 feet high. At first encounter a school of 4 approached the ship head on and seeing the dorsal fins the author thought they were Orcinus orca (nr. 69). When they passed the ship at a distance of less than 50 yards just under the surface in the flat calm, clear sea, it was obvious that this was a different species. They were indifferent to the ship and neither changed course nor dived.”

Despite being available for the purposes of zoological nomenclature, strictly meaning that it follows the rules of the Code, that does not necessarily mean that O. morzerbruynsus is valid. It is possible that it is a synonym of a known species if it was misidentified by Mörzer Bruyns. In the absence of physical specimens, it is best regarded as a species inquirenda needing further study to determine its identity. If specimens are found and can be conclusively demonstrated to be a distinct species and the same witnessed by Mörzer Bruyns, then O. morzerbruynsus is the oldest available and correct specific name. It could turn out to be a different genus from Orcinus orca, in which instance it would need a new generic name.

References

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