Name of the whale

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The oldest ‘true’ baleen whale fossil ever found, at more than 27.5 million years old, was excavated about 30 years ago from a dairy farm at Hakataramea in South Canterbury. In April, it was finally named: Toipahautea waitaki, which translates to ‘baleen origin whale of the Waitaki region’. The University of Otago’s Māori Affairs department and Ngāi Tāhu were consulted for help with the name.

Many New Zealand species’ Linnaean names carry te reo in part or in full. However, University of Waikato associate professor Hēmi Whaanga says while it’s important te reo is used, care must be taken because naming is often done without consultation with local iwi.

“It’s a respect thing—we need to consider the names we plan to use might be sacred, refer to history, genealogy, places, events. Using them in another context can confuse people on the true meaning, or it may be culturally inappropriate to use that name.”

Name blunders of the past include the hybrid te reo-Latin Taniwhasaurus oweni, a mosasaur named in 1874. Using te reo in Linnaean naming still desperately needs protocol, says Whaanga: “Once it’s named, you can’t change it.”

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