Why The Sperm Whale Got Its Name? (Not What You Thought)

Have you ever wondered why the largest-toothed whale is called a “sperm whale”? Their name definitely grabs attention, but it comes from an unexpected place.

The story behind the sperm whale’s name gives us a fascinating glimpse into the history of whaling and the uses of whale products in past centuries. It also reveals how little was known about whale biology when the name was first coined.

Why Are Sperm Whales Called Sperm Whales?

The sperm whale’s common English name came from the whaling industry between the late 18th century through the 19th century. Whalers discovered that these whales had a waxy substance called spermaceti inside their heads.

This spermaceti was found in a large organ in the whale’s head that could hold over 1,300 gallons of oily fluid.

Back then, spermaceti was incredibly valuable. It was used to make oil, candles, soap, and lubricants. Whalers would hunt the whales specifically for their spermaceti, extracting it from the organ in their heads. Since this oily waxy substance was such a target, the whales became known as “sperm whales.” This is the common name we use today.

The name refers to how spermaceti was thought to resemble sperm or semen back in those whaling days. While that assumption was incorrect, the name stuck.

The sperm whale is also known by other names, like “cachalot” which is thought to derive from the old French word for “teeth” or “big teeth”. This refers to the whale’s large, cone-shaped teeth.

Who First Named Them “Sperm Whales”?

While we can’t pinpoint the first person to name them “sperm whales”. However, the first use of “sperm whale” came from European whalers and naturalists in the 18th century.

Back then, whalers were still figuring out this species. When they hunted the whales and looked inside their large heads, they found a strange waxy substance. This material looked like sperm to them – it was milky-white and thick. So they called it “spermaceti.”

They wrongly assumed this spermaceti stuff was the whale’s actual sperm or semen. That led them to give the species the common name “sperm whale.” This useful but inaccurate name stuck, spreading through the whaling and science communities.

It was not until Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus formally described the species in his 1758 10th edition of Systema Naturae. He gave the sperm whale the scientific name “Physeter macrocephalus”, meaning “big-headed bellows”. But the common name used by those early whalers is still used worldwide today – Sperm Whale.

In the end, Linnaeus created the scientific term “Physeter macrocephalus”. The common name “sperm whale” came from the whalers and naturalists centuries ago. They assumed spermaceti was sperm – even after learning that wasn’t true. Their chosen name lives on due to those early misconceptions.

What Is Spermaceti?

Spermaceti is a waxy substance found in the head of the sperm whale. It is a white, semi-solid substance that is made up of triglycerides and wax esters. Spermaceti is produced in the spermaceti organ. This is a large, barrel-shaped organ located in the top head of the sperm whale.

In mature adults, the spermaceti organ can hold over 2,000 liters and extend through 40% of the whale’s total body length. That said, this organ makes up a substantial portion of the whale’s head. Because the head constitutes about one-third of the total body length.

The percentage of wax esters increases from around 40% to nearly 90% as a whale ages.

The Function of Spermaceti in Sperm Whales

Spermaceti has some intriguing properties. It can shift between liquid and solid states. Scientists have proposed a few theories for what exactly sperm whales use their spermaceti for:

  • Acoustic focusing: As a liquid, spermaceti transmits sound waves well. The solid form may act like a lens to focus or direct the whale’s clicks for echolocation, communication, and hunting. This is supported by research from NASA.
  • Ramming/headbutting: Male sperm whales often engage in ramming/headbutting contests. The solid spermaceti may protect the whale’s skull and amplify the force of rams.
  • Thermoregulation: Shifting between liquid and solid states could help the whales cool or heat their heads and bodies. Whale Facts notes this use.
  • Buoyancy control: As spermaceti solidifies it releases oil. This provides extra buoyancy control important for deep-diving whales.

Uses of Spermaceti

Here are some key historical and current uses of spermaceti from sperm whales:

Historical Uses of Spermaceti

In the 18th and 19th centuries, spermaceti oil from sperm whales became a key commodity and household item:

  • Candles: Mixing hardened spermaceti with whale oil created smokeless, bright burning candles. Spermaceti “candles were considered the best illuminant known” until superseded by kerosene lamps.
  • Textile industry: Spermaceti lubricated spindles and other machinery during the Industrial Revolution’s textile boom.
  • Soaps: Its emulsifying properties make spermaceti useful in soaps.
  • Machine oil: Before petroleum-based oils, spermaceti’s stable composition was an ideal lubricant for machinery.
  • Cosmetics and ointments: It found use in skin creams, ointments, and other cosmetics.
  • Pharmaceuticals: Spermaceti was used in cough syrups, poultices, and other drugs.

Spermaceti has many applications. So, it was a major driver of the 18th and 19th century sperm whale fishery, before crude oil dominated industrial lubricants.

Modern Uses of Spermaceti

While no longer commercially hunted, small amounts of spermaceti are still used today in specialty cosmetics, ointments, fine wax candles, and other niche products.

It also has minor pharmaceutical applications, but synthetic substitutes have displaced much of its historical use. Some research even suggests it could help improve ultrasound and other medical techniques.

The Role of Spermaceti in The Whaling Industry

The widespread commercial uses of spermaceti helped make sperm whaling an immensely profitable global industry in its heyday. Whalers harvested an estimated 1-2 million sperm whales during the 18th to 20th century.

Whalers would remove the massive spermaceti organ from whales’ heads and melt it down to extract the precious oils on board ships. The hunt focused solely on adult male whales, which contained the most spermaceti.

Dense spermaceti also made the whales float after death, allowing whalers to easily retrieve their valuable carcasses. This boosted hunting efficiency and added to the sperm whale’s whaling appeal.

By the mid-19th century, whaling had severely depleted sperm whale numbers. Petroleum later replaced most spermaceti applications, ending the era of commercial sperm whaling. But the damage was done to populations that are slow to recover even today.

Why Not Change the Name?

Though the original thinking behind “sperm whale” was proven wrong, there are solid reasons why the name has stuck around:

  • It’s familiar: “Sperm whale” has been used for over 250 years since its scientific debut. The public and scientists alike instantly recognize the name. Changing it now would cause confusion, as one article points out.
  • No clear alternative: While we know it’s not sperm, terms like “spermaceti whale” are also misleading. There’s no consensus on a name that better suits what we’ve learned.
  • Conservation impact: Introducing a new name could reduce public awareness of this endangered species. Keeping the common name boosts conservation efforts, says Ocean Conservancy.
  • Honoring history: The old name pays respect to the whalers who first studied sperm whales, even if they made false assumptions.

Even though the name “sperm whale” is inaccurate, people still use it. Changing the name could confuse people or harm conservation efforts. Keeping a familiar name avoids these problems. The benefits of changing the name do not outweigh keeping it the same. So the old name continues, even if the science behind it is outdated.


A Theory for the Function of the Spermaceti Organ of the Sperm Whale

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