Last modified: Wednesday December 6th, 2000

Classification of whales

order Cetacea

Mysticeti Baleen Whales
Ballenas de barbas
Odontoceti Toothed Whales
Ballenas dentadas

The cetacean suborders

The modern cetaceans, the order Cetacea, are represented by two suborders: the baleen whales or Mysticeti and the toothed whales or Odontoceti. The third suborder, the Archeoceti is now extinct. The main differences between the two groups are:

Mysticeti Odontoceti
No teeth. Instead they have keratin baleen plates, suspended from the roof of the mouth All species have teeth. There number of teeth varies from 2 in some beaked whales to more than 250 in some dolphin species.
Two nasal openings (or blowholes) Single nasal opening (or blowhole)
The skull is symmetrical The skull is asymmetrical
The melon is present only in the fetal stage and absent or poorly developed in adults. They have no echolocation capabilities. The melon is well developed. It plays a major role in echolocation.

Mysticete skeleton (right whale)
Odontocete skeleton (killer whale)

A note on the taxonomy of whales and dolphins

The taxonomy of cetaceans is still subject to change. Recent developments in the fields of paleontology, molecular biology (especially DNA sequencing) and phylogeny have led to new insights into this area. In a recent publication, Rice (1998) proposed a number of new cetaceans families and a species status for some varieties that may or may not have been accepted as subspecies before. In addition, some species names have been altered.

In the following pages, I have used the more traditional list of species and families, but where there are differences between this list and the one proposed by Rice, I have added the new names (and inserted family names) marked with .


Rice, D.W. (1998)
Marine mammals of the world - Systematics and distribution
Society of Marine Mammalogy Special Publication Number 4, 231 pp.

Classification of the sperm whales

The sperm whales are currently classified as toothed whales, but there is a growing body of evidence that they are actually closer to the baleen whales than to the toothed whales. This is based on the following data:

Based on this the relationships between the cetacean groups may be as follows. Note that especially the placement of the beaked whales (Ziphiidae) and the river dolphins (Platanistidae) is still unclear.

For more information see:

Evans, P.G.H (1987)
The natural history of whales and dolphins. Christopher Helm, London
Klima, M. (1995)
Cetacean phylogeny and systematics based on the morphogenesis of the nasal skull. Aquatic Mammals 21(2):79-89
Milinkovitch, M.C., Orti, G. and Meyer, A. (1993)
Revised phylogeny of whales by mitochondrial ribosomal DNA sequences. Nature 361: 346-348

Sources for the names in different languages:

Note: There are no set rules for non-scientific animal names. The lists of common names provided in the following pages is by no means exhaustive and there can be any number of different regional names for a certain species within any language. Some species may not have a common name in certain languages. The lists of common names are based on the sources listed below. Corrections and/or additions are welcome. If you wish to provide a list of common names in a language not yet listed on this site, you can download a species list here. This is a Word document. Return it by e-mail to 

M. Klinowksa (1991)
Dolphins, Porpoises and Whales of the World. The IUCN Red Data Book
IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, U.K.
M. Camm and B. Stonehouse (1983) (Translation: M.A. IJsseling & A. Scheyground)
Zeezoogdieren. Thieme, Zutphen, the Netherlands
A. Collet (1999) (Translation: Jutta Koch)
Tanz mit den Walen. Econ & List Taschenbuch Verlag, München, Germany
D. W. MacDonald (ed.) (1985) (Translation: Ragnar Frislid)
Verdens dyr - Havets pattedyr. J.W. Cappelens Forlag A-S, Oslo, Norway
Finnish names kindly provided by University of Helsinki and Tampereen Särkänniemi OY.
B. Stonehouse and M. Camm (1983) (Translation: Lennart Stenberg)
Haverts däggdjur. Wahlström & Widstrand, Stockholm, Sweden.
M. Carwardine (1997) (Translation: Carl Kinze)
Hvaler og delfiner i farver. Politikens Forlag A/S, Copenhagen, Denmark
French names kindly provided by Anne Collet
Italian names kindly provided by Alessandro Bortolotto (Zoönomia)
T.A. Jefferson, S. Leatherwood and M.A. Webber (1996)
Marine mammals of the world. ETI World Biodiversity Database CD-ROM series.
Expert Center for Taxonomic Identification, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Additional Spanish names kindly provided by Alfred Boeren
Portugese names kindly provided by Pedro Martins (Projecto Delfim)

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