AskDefine | Define cetology

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  1. The branch of zoology concerned with the order Cetacea, which includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

Extensive Definition

Cetology (from Greek: κητος, cetus, "whale"; and λόγος, logos, "knowledge") is the branch of marine mammal science that studies the approximately eighty species of whales, dolphins, and porpoise in the scientific order Cetacea.
Cetologists, or those who practice cetology, seek to understand and explain cetacean evolution, distribution, morphology, behavior, community dynamics, and other topics.


Observations about Cetacea have been recorded since at least classical times. Ancient Greek fisherpeople created an artificial notch on the dorsal fin of dolphins entangled in nets so that they could tell them apart years later.
Approximately 2,300 years ago, Aristotle carefully took notes on cetaceans while traveling on boats with fisherpeople in the Aegean Sea. In his book Historia animalium (History of animals), Aristotle was careful enough to distinguish between the baleen whales and toothed whales, a taxonomical separation still used today. He also described the Sperm Whale and the common dolphin, stating that they can live for at least twenty-five or thirty years. His achievement was remarkable for its time, because even today it is very difficult to estimate the life-span of advanced marine animals.
After Aristotle's death, much of the knowledge he had gained about cetaceans was lost, only to be re-discovered during the Renaissance.
Many of the medieval texts on cetaceans comes mainly from Scandinavia and Iceland, most come about around the mid-13 century.
One of the more well known one is Speculum Regale. In this text is described various species that lived around the island of Iceland. It mentions "orcs" that had dog-like teeth and would demonstrate the same kind of aggression towards other cetaceans as wild dogs would do to other terrestrial animals. The text even illustrated the hunting technique of Orcs, which are now called Orcas.
The Speculum Regale describes other cetaceans, including the Sperm Whale and Narwhale. Many times they were seen as terrible monsters, such as killers of men, and destroyers of ships. They even bore them odd names such as "Pig Whale", "Horse Whale", and "Red Whale".
But not all creatures described were said to be fierce. Some were seen to be good, such as whales that drove shoals of herring towards the shore. This was seen as very helpful to fisherman.
Many of the early studies were based on dead specimens and myth. The little information that was gathered was usual length, and a rough outer body anatomy. Because these animals live in water their entire lives, early scientists did not have the technology to go study these animals further. It wasn't until the 1500s that things would begin to change. That cetaceans would be proved to be mammals rather than fish.
Aristotle, as said above, argued they were mammals. But Pliny the Elder stated that they were fish, and it was followed by many naturalists. However, Pierre Belon (1517-1575) and G. Rondelet (1507-1566) persisted on convincing they were mammals. They argued that the animals had lungs and a uterus, just like mammals. Not until 1758, when Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) published the tenth edition of Systema Naturae, were they seen as mammals.
Only decades later, French zoologist and paleontologist Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) described the animals as mammals without any hind legs. Skeletons were assembled and displayed in the first natural history museums, and on a closer look and comparisons with other extinct animal fossils led zoologists to conclude that cetaceans came from a family of ancient land mammals.
Between the 9th-20th century, much of our information on cetaceans came from whalers. Whalers were the most knowledgeable about the animals, but their information was regarding migration routes and outer anatomy, and only little information of behavior.
During the 1960s, people began studying the animals intensively. This came from both concern about wild populations and also the capture of larger animals such as the Orca, and gaining popularity of dolphin shows in marine parks.

Studying cetaceans


  • Whales: Giants of the Sea, 2000
  • Transients: Mammal-Hunting Killer Whales, by John K.B. Ford and Graeme M. Ellis, 1999
cetology in Catalan: Cetologia
cetology in German: Cetologie
cetology in Icelandic: Hvalafræði
cetology in Italian: Cetologia
cetology in Japanese: クジラ学
cetology in Norwegian: Cetologi
cetology in Polish: Cetologia
cetology in Simple English: Cetology
cetology in Swedish: Cetologi
cetology in Turkish: Setoloji
cetology in Urdu: حوتیات
cetology in Chinese: 鯨類學
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