Science Live: Whalebirds – the mystery of the storm riders. Part 2. What’s in a name?

Here is the second instalment in our series of blogs all about prions!  This is in preparation for our upcoming Science Live event on Oct 22nd at 1:50 pm NZ time when you can accompany us into the lab via live streaming (a permanent link to the YouTube video can be found below).  For more details please see:   

Elizabeth Crotty about to embark in a dissection.

Elizabeth Crotty about to embark in a dissection.

Today’s blog is written by Lizzy Crotty.  Lizzy is a Tasmanian native visiting us for 3.5 months.  Little did she realise when she signed up to work with us that she would become an expert in dissecting birds!

I am Elizabeth Crotty, an undergraduate student from the University of Queensland in Australia.  I came to Wellington to undertake 14 weeks of work placement for my Bachelor of Environmental Management at Te Papa’s research centre.  I’ve always had a particular interest in birds, and when I heard about the prion project I decided I should cross the ditch and see what New Zealand was all about.

When I first got here and saw the amount of prions that had been sent to Te Papa following the seabird wreck in 2011, I was overwhelmed.  Firstly because it was sad to see that so many had died (and that’s only a fraction of them!), and secondly because I knew I had to dissect as many as I could in my short time here.  Due to my limited experience in cutting up dead things, I felt like climbing Everest might be a more obtainable achievement.

However, after being here almost three months (and getting a lot of help from my very patient supervisor Sarah Jamieson), I can now take external morphological measurements, collect age and sex data, remove a tongue, digestive tract and syrinx in under half an hour – not bad!

Measuring the wing of a prion © Lizzy Crotty

Measuring the wing of a prion © Lizzy Crotty

Aside from the time in the lab with my feathered companions and the radio to keep me sane, I have also been reading historical accounts of prion, and it seems that these birds have had many different scientific and common names throughout time.  Some common names they are referred to as include ‘dove petrels’, ‘icebirds’, and ‘blue petrels’.  I also came across an account of Broad-billed Prions being called ‘Blue Billy’.  However one name that comes up most commonly is ‘whalebirds’.  I was interested to find out where the name originated from and my search came up with a few different theories which I have listed below.

Whale boat, Carnley Harbour. Te Papa object O.007069

Whale boat, Carnley Harbour. Te Papa object O.007069

The most common reason for the origin of this name suggested it was due to prions being found in the presence of whales because the whales drive prey towards the surface and the birds swoop in to take advantage and old time whalers gave the birds this name because flocks of them at sea was a sure sign whales were near.  Another suggestion for the name is because prions follow whaling vessels, to feed on the blubber and floating oil.

Prion bill showing the lamellae (little finger-like extensions). Photo © Colin Miskelly.

Prion bill showing the lamellae (little finger-like extensions). Photo © Colin Miskelly.

Another interesting point I came across was that the name ‘prion’ came from the Greek word priōn for saw, and was bestowed on these petrels because the lamellae they use to filter feed resemble the teeth of a saw.  It is also suggested the term ‘whalebird’ was given due to the similarity of this feeding mechanism between these birds and plankton-feeding baleen whales.  Richdale (1965) describes the origin of the name ‘whalebird’ is for this reason; ‘along each side of the bill, and visible when the bill is shut, is a set of little comb-like ‘teeth’ through which the water is filtered before the food is swallowed.  The lower part of the bill is in the form of a pouch, which can be extended downwards to accommodate a larger mouthful of seawater together with food.’

However, the most interesting suggestion of what a ‘whalebird’ was comes from the, which describes a ‘whalebird’ as: ‘An extremely large winged mammal which generally resembles a whale but with enormous eagle-like wings.’

So all in all is it unclear where the name comes from exactly, however I don’t believe the ‘extremely large winged mammal’ theory really has much ground.



Online Oxford Dictionaries:

Richdale, L.E. 1965, ‘Breeding behaviour of the Narrow-billed prion and the Broad-billed prion on Whero Island, New Zealand’, The Transaction of the Zoological Society of London 21: 87-155.

Soper, M.F. 1976, New Zealand Birds. 2nd ed.  Whitcoulls Limited, ChristchurchNew Zealand.

Te Ara, The Encyclopaedia of NZ:

Western Mail (Perth, WA) 17th March 1927:

Video of the Oct 22 Science Live event can be watched by clicking below.


One Response

  1. simon cooke-willis

    I rememeber the storm we buried 200 birds at waikane beach
    The science alive video is great -TePapa have done a great job bringing the prions story
    to all – well done this is brilliant.


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