Giglioli’s Whale

After his lunch on 4 September 1867, the young naturalist Enrico Hillyer Giglioli observed a remarkable baleen whale with two dorsal fins far off the coast of Chile. Due to the unusual fins and an apparent lack of ventral pleats, Giglioli felt the whale was sufficiently distinct to name Amphiptera pacifica and hoped other, luckier naturalists would shortly acquire a specimen*. This never happened. The hypothetical whale is now almost forgotten, aside from being listed as a nomen dubium in databases, but there are still believers. Raynal & Sylvestre (1991) argued that Amphiptera is a valid entity, has been observed on multiple occasions and may be distinct enough to warrant its own ‘family’ (Amphipteridae). While some cetaceans can be surprisingly cryptic, the notion that one of the world’s largest and most unmistakable animals has almost entirely avoided human detection is a tough sell. Additionally, anecdotal evidence – even from experts – is notoriously problematic and cannot be used to describe new species. I’m just not satisfied with leaving Giglioli’s Whale as a nomen dubium, and I suspect the animal he saw was a remarkable representative of a rare, but known, species.

* Which has precedent with Lagenorhynchus crucigerCephalorhynchus commersonii & Sousa chinensisSee Dubois & Nemésio (2007) for why hypothetical descriptions are unacceptable today.

The critical information for identifying Giglioli’s whale comes from an illustration included in his 1870, which unfortunately is missing from the Google Books edition. The only copy I can find is from Raynal’s website, and while I can’t vouch for how well it represents the original, all the important details are reasonably visible.

Giglioli’s Whale bears an uncanny resemblance to Caperea marginata – which I refuse to call ‘Pygmy Right Whale’ because that name is the worst – specifically, a stranded 3 meter individual whose dissection was documented at Te Papa’s blog. Caperea was first described in 1846, however knowledge of its external appearance appeared to be quite rudimentary as of Beddard (1901). Giglioli was also only 22 when he observed the whale – having inherited the position of ship’s naturalist after the death of Filippo de Filippi (Croce 2002) – and didn’t appear to have a specialized interest in cetaceans. So not only is it unlikely for Giglioli to have ever heard of Caperea, even if he did the species probably would have been known only from baleen plates and ear bones at the time.


Supernumerary dorsal fin aside, Giglioli’s illustration looks like a remarkably accurate early representation of Caperea. Particularly striking similarities include the moderately arched jawline, the proportional size and shape of the head, and the size, shape and placement of the (second) dorsal fin. Giglioli described the baleen of his whale as black and while that of Caperea is mostly white, it has brown or black margins (Kemper 2009); since Giglioli only observed his whale open its mouth slightly, his observation is consistent with Caperea. It does not appear that Caperea has an underbite as Giglioli reported for ‘Amphiptera‘, but this can potentially be explained by the lower jaw being in motion (“as if forming a bolus”). The distribution of the baleen and the lightly colored interior of the mouth are, however, quite similar. The splash guard of ‘Amphiptera‘ is more prominent and set further back than that of Caperea, but still appears reasonably close. Giglioli reported a ridge from the nostrils to the end of the snout, a feature present in Caperea (Jefferson et al. 2008). The coloration of ‘Amphiptera‘ was oddly described as “greenish-gray” but it appears broadly similar to that of Caperea. One inconsistency is that Caperea possesses one or two chevrons, however some sources imply they may not always be present (e.g. Jefferson et al. 2008) and some at-sea photographs show they may be subtle enough to overlook.


Giglioli described ‘Amphiptera‘ as having large, sickle-shaped flippers and those of Caperea are typically described as small and rounded at the tips (e.g. Kemper 2009). While this would seem difficult to reconcile, this photograph of a live individual (from Nowak 1999) suggests otherwise. The relatively dark color of the flippers is another significant similarity.


One of the defining traits of ‘Amphiptera‘ is a lack of ventral pleats, and as the live individual above (also from Nowak 1999) demonstrates, Caperea has throat grooves which can easily be overlooked. Reportedly, they are “virtually absent” in some individuals (Heyning 2009). It’s worth comparing with the morphology of a species Giglioli was familiar with, such as Humpback Whales.

Two dorsal fins have been photographically documented in Humpback Whales, a Sperm Whale and a Common Dolphin, so it seems reasonable this abnormality could occur in Caperea as well. The considerable spacing between the fins and greater development in the supernumerary one would still be firsts, as far as I can tell. An alternate explanation is an optical illusion caused by two individuals (Andrews 1916), however this can be ruled out since Giglioli observed his whale from above, quite closely (slightly over 3 meters away?) and for a long duration (~15 minutes). The other purported ‘Amphiptera‘ encounters, however, are so vague that abnormalities and optical illusions cannot be ruled out.

Caperea has a maximum length of only 6.5 meters (Kemper 2002), so reconciling it with the reportedly 18 m ‘Amphiptera‘ would seem… difficult. It’s worth repeating that estimating size at sea is notoriously difficult (e.g. Baird 2010) and Giglioli himself provides an excellent example. One the same voyage he observed ‘Amphiptera‘, Giglioli a 30 meter ‘Poescopia‘, now know to be a synonym of Humpback Whales. Most studies found Humpback Whales to have maximum lengths of 14-15 meters with some barely plausible early reports of 17-18 m specimens (Clapham & Mead 1999). Even if Giglioli actually observed an extremely large Humpback, his size estimate was still undoubtedly grossly inaccurate.

There is only one known record of Caperea from Chile, and it was slightly over 13 degrees south of where Giglioli observed his whale (Cabrera et al. 2005). Caperea is sometimes listed as inhabiting the region ‘Amphiptera‘ was described from (e.g. Jefferson et al. 2008), but this is entirely hypothetical. Also problematic is that “less than” 25 sightings of Caperea are known and in sightings in oceanic environments (all ~8 of them) they have been sighted in groups of up to 80 individuals (Kemper 2009). It could be possible that individual Caperea do occasionally cruise the temperate waters of the eastern Pacific, but this will require confirmation.

Giglioli reported ‘Amphiptera‘ had a blow which reached a height of around 3 meters, and I am not clear if Caperea is capable of that. The blow of Caperea is described as only occasionally visible and typically small and oval (Kemper 2009) or sometimes thin and columnar (Jefferson et al. 2008). Perhaps notably, Giglioli did not observe the initial blow and all subsequent ones did not produce visible vapor, so an alternate explanation could be that the initial “spout” was actually a splash.

amphiptera (2)

The most problematic inconsistency between ‘Amphiptera‘ and Caperea comes from Giglioli’s illustration. The only bird’s eye view of Caperea I can find unfortunately doesn’t illustrate this problem – the rostrum of Caperea is narrow but Giglioli illustrated a very wide rorqual-like one. This is especially baffling since Giglioli apparently observed it from above for an extended period of time. If ‘Amphiptera‘ and Caperea really are one in the same, Giglioli would have had to considerably misremember the head morphology when he made this illustration. Perhaps this sort of thing is to be expected in the age before photography became commonplace.

The ‘Amphiptera‘-as-Caperea hypothesis is admittedly imperfect, but despite the inconsistencies, I think there are enough similarities to make it a far more likely alternative to a giant, rogue rorqual. Personally, I think that multi-finned whales of any sort roaming around are hardly any less exciting.


Andrews, R. (1916) Whale Hunting with Gun and Camera. Available.

Baird, R. (2010) Pygmy Killer Whales (Feresa attenuata) or False Killer Whales (Pseudorca crassidens)? Identification of a Group of Small Cetaceans Seen off Ecuador in 2003. Aquatic Mammals 36(3) 326–327. Available.

Beddard, F. (1901) Contribution towards a knowledge of the osteology of the pigmy whale (Neobalaena marginata). Transactions of the Zoological Society of London 16 87–115. Available.

Cabrera, E. et al. (2005) A pygmy right whale (Caperea marginata) from Chiloe Island, Chile. Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, Ulsan, Korea. Available.

Croce, N. (2002) Italian Contributions to the Knowledge of the Southeast Pacific Ocean IN: Benson, K. & Rehbock, P. (2002) Oceanographic History: The Pacific and Beyond.

Dubois, A. & Nemésio, A. (2007) Does nomenclatural availability of nomina of new species or subspecies require the deposition of vouchers in collections? Zootaxa 1409, 1–22. Available.

Giglioli, E. & Issel, A. (1884) Pelagos, saggi sulla vita e sui prodotti del mare. Available.

Giglioli, E. (1870) Note intorno alla distribuzione della fauna vertebrata nell’oceano: prese durante un viaggio intorno al globo 1865-68. Available.

Heyning, J. (2009) Marine Mammal Evolution and Taxonomy IN: Steele, J. et al. (eds.) Marine Biology: A Derivative of the Encyclopedia of Ocean Sciences. 2nd Edition.

Jefferson, T. et al. (2008) Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals.

Kemper, C. (2009) Pygmy Right Whale IN: Perrin, W. et al. (eds.) Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals.

Kemper, C. (2002) Distribution of the Pygmy Right Whale, Caperea marginata, in the Australasian region. Marine Mammal Science 18(1) 99–111. Available.

Nowak, R. (1999) Walker’s Mammals of the World. Sixth Edition.

Raynal, M. & Sylvestre, J.-P. (1991) Cetaceans with two dorsal fins. Aquatic Mammals 17(1) 31–36. Available.

Original Text (and crude translation):

Giglioli & Issel (1884), 79-84:

Il terzo gruppo di Balenottere sarebbe costituito per accogliere la singolarissima specie veduta da noi nel Pacifico e distinta da tutte le altre conosciute per aver due pinne dorsali ben marcate e, pare, per mancare delle pieghe cutanee longitudinali della gola; io l’ho nominata Amphiptera Pacifica, facendone, beninteso tipo di un nuovo genere.

Named ‘Amphiptera pacifica‘ on the basis of two well-developed dorsal fins and no apparent throat folds (pleats).

Eravamo in via dal Callao a Valparaiso, ed avevamo subito grandi ritardi pei venti contrarii e per lunghe calme, queste ultime però assai favorevoli agli studi della Fauna pelagica; quando nel pomeriggio del 4 settembre 1867 in Lat. 28° 34′ S Long. 88° 10 O. Gr., mentre io stava per ritirare la reticella che avevo attaccato al parapetto di ferro della scala reale, fui scosso da un subitaneo fruscio immediatamente sotto di me, seguito da uno spruzzo di vapore condensato o di acqua minutamente divisa che potrei quasi dire di aver sentito, perchè lasciò l’impronta bagnata sul fianco della nave quasi fino al luogo dove io era; nello stesso tempo apparve il dorso grigio-verdastro di un grande Cetaceo, il quale, cosa notevolissima, mostrava due pinne dorsali bene sviluppate, erette, triangolari, separate da un grande intervallo apparentemente liscio. L’animale non pareva punto spaventato della nostra prossimità, eravamo in bonaccia e l’elice era sospesa; esso rimase per quasi un quarto d’ora accanto alla corvetta, onde potei, col confronto, fare un calcolo abbastanza esatto della sua lunghezza che certo non poteva essere lontana dai 18 metri; lo spazio tra le due pinne dorsali era circa 2 metri.

While collecting netting from the railing off the side of the Magenta, Giglioli was startled by a loud noise below him, followed by a splash of steam or water which nearly reached the place he was standing. At the same time, he saw the gray-green back of a large whale with two well-developed, erect and triangular dorsal fins separated by a smooth interval of 2 meters. The length was estimated to be “not far from 18 meters” and the animal was next to the corvette for nearly a quarter of an hour.

In tutto quel tempo io potetti esaminare quella Balenottera quasi a volo d’uccello, e ne feci uno schizzo. La testa non era più larga del corpo, era ristretta anteriormente terminando in un rostro arrotondato; la mandibola sporgeva al disotto, ma non molto. Il vertice del capo era convesso e carenato sino alla regione nasale, ove la carena sembrava biforcarsi per difendere le narici, che mi parvero di forma semilunare. Il corpo, veduto da sopra aveva forme snelle ed allungate, era molto compresso dietro la seconda dorsale per poi espandersi nei lobi della coda, di medie dimensioni. Il colore di tutte le parti superiori era un grigio-verdastro, più scuro sulla parte anteriore del dorso e sulle pinne. Quando l’animale mi comparve dinanzi, muoveva lentamente la mascella inferiore come in atto di formare un bolo di qualcosa già imprigionato entro lo steccato naturale formato dai suoi fanoni. Avevamo incontrato Salpe in abbondanza; intorno ad esso vidi nuotare un numero di Pesci che sembravano essere Naucrates e Caranx, astuta genìa che segue le navi ed i grandi Squali, ma che segue le navi ed i grandi Squali, ma che ben di rado si lascia prendere.

Giglioli observed the whale from a near-bird’s eye view. The head was larger than the body, which narrowed before ending off in a rounded snout. There was a slight underbite. The head was convex and formed a ridge up to the nasal region, where the ridge forked around the crescent-shaped nostrils. The body was slender and elongate, narrowed behind the second dorsal fin, and expanded into medium-sized flukes. It was greenish-gray above, being darker on the back and fins. The lower jaw was moving as if forming a bolus. It was associated with salps, Pilot Fish and Jacks.

Come dissi innanzi, vi era certamente dell’acqua in forma di spruzzo minutissimo nel primo sbuffo dato dalla nostra Amphiptera appena venne a fior di; acqua ma non bisogna per un momento credere che io abbia l’intenzione di resuscitare l’idea, un tempo generalmente accettata, che i Cetacei nel respirare facessero, come fontane, zampillare dalle loro narici l’acqua ricevuta col cibo entro la bocca: tal caso fu ripetutamente provato essere impossibile per fatti morfologici e fisiologici innegabili. Io ritengo che il getto espiratorio in questi animali, naturalmente saturo di vapor acqueo, diventi quasi uno spruzzo d’acqua, pel condensamento di quello, nei casi di notevole differenza tra la temperatura dell’ambiente esterno e quella dell’interno del corpo del Cetaceo; ma quando un tale sbilancio termico non esiste, l’acqua sminuzzata che può trovarsi nel getto espiratorio può anche essere penetrata accidentalmente nelle cavità nasali durante la ispirazione fatta quasi a livello del mare onde sarebbe cosa naturalissima la sua espulsione nell’atto dell’espirazione. Fui spiacente di non aver veduto il primo getto della mia Amphiptera, che non poteva esser giunto a meno di tre metri all’incirca di altezza, il rumore di quel primo soffio era profondo, prolungato, simile a quello che potrebbe produrre una colonna d’aria entro un grosso tubo di rame; durò otto o dieci secondi L’animale continuò a soffiare mentre stava quasi immobile alla superficie, ad intervalli di forse due minuti, ma con molto meno rumore e senza getto visibile.

Giglioli did not observe the first spray from Amphiptera, which reached a height of around 3 meters. The animal then breathed about once every two minutes, but with less noise and no visible spray.

Vedendo quel Cetaceo in apparenza così mansueto, furono fatti dagli ufficiali vari preparativi per tentarne la cattura, mentre il Comandante Arminjon faceva mettere a mare un battello acciochè potessi dare più da vicino un’occhiata alla mia nuova conoscenza. Tutto ciò procedeva naturalmente nel massimo silenzio e sul lato opposto della nave; il nostromo aveva frugato abbasso onde rinvenire un’arpone e metter insieme una adeguata lunghezza di fune robusta, mentre il capo-cannoniere aveva pian piano fatto correre fuori uno dei nostri cannoncini d’ottone per il caso si presentasse l’occasione di un buon colpo, ma non potè essere abbassato tanto da portare sulla vittima desiderata; la quale cominciando senza dubbio ad intendere l’interessamento di cui diventava oggetto, si volse alquanto sul fianco destro per dare un’occhiata al suo grande vicino la Magenta; ed io ebbi l’opportunità di completare le mie osservazioni sui suoi caratteri esterni. Tutte le parti inferiori erano di un grigio biancastro che passava impercettibilmente nel colore più cupo di quelle superiori; non potei vedere alcun segno delle pieghe cutanee longitudinali sulla gola e sul petto, così cospicue nelle altre Balenottere; l’occhio era piccolo e lo distinguevo benissimo; i fanoni erano scuri, ma si vedevano poco, la bocca essendo quasi chiusa. La pinna pettorale sinistra, che apparve per un momento sopra la superficie del mare, era falciforme e più lunga che non nelle Balenottere tipiche. In quel momento io vedeva perfettameute le due pinne dorsali: ambedue erette irregolarmente triangolari, col margine anteriore molto gradamente inclinato, quello posteriore quasi perpendicolare; la punta in entrambe era arrotondata e leggermente uncinata. La prima, posta a metà distanza tra le narici e la coda, era notevolmente più grande della seconda.

The lower parts of the whale were whitish gray, grading into the darker color above. There were no longitudinal folds of skin on the throat and chest. The eye was small. The baleen was dark. The left pectoral fin was briefly observed above the surface, was sickle-shaped, and longer than usual. The dorsal fins were shaped like irregular triangles with the anterior margin being strongly inclined and the posterior margin being almost perpendicular; the tip was rounded and slightly hooked; the first was located halfway between the nose and the tail and was larger than the second.

Mentre io l osservavo…

Giglioli makes general observations on how whales swim. It’s not really relevant.

Il battello era stato intanto ammainato e vi entrai sperando ancora di poter vedere più da vicino la nostra Amphiptera, mentre alcuni dei miei compagni, che avevano messo insieme più di 50 braccia di fune e trovato un’arpone irrugginito, si lusingavano ancora di riuscire a catturarla. Ma quando ci staccammo dalla nave, l’animale si era immerso affatto, spaventato forse dal rumore dei remi; dopo un dieci minuti ricomparve lontano, si tuffò nuovamente e siccome la notte si avvicinava non potemmo più vederlo derlo Questa singolare Balenottera non venne più incontrata, nè mi risulta che altri l’abbia sinora veduta onde non mi rimane che ad esprimere la speranza che l’Amphiptera venga ritrovata ed in condizioni da poter confermare quanto io vidi e completare lo studio di un Cetaceo così interessante.

Giglioli’s colleagues lowered a boat in the water in attempt to capture the animal, but the whale was scared off and as night fell Giglioli could no longer see it.

9 thoughts on “Giglioli’s Whale

  1. Michel RAYNAL

    Interesting hypothesis, but which I cannot share, sorry. The pygmy right whale hardly reaches 7 m in length, whereas Giglioli’s whale was 18 m long, about 2.5 times more ! Regarding Giglioli’s aptitude to observation, may I recall that he was a great ornithologist, and efficient bird watching of a passerine in a tree is certainly much more difficult than observing a whale just “side by side” to the boat during almost an hour : Giglioli (and, as a matter of fact, myself) did both bird watching and whale watching as a zoologist long before it became a hobby for tourists… Above all, the additional dorsal fin among anomalous humpback whales (now documented by a lot of photographs and even a movie just taken off Maui, Hawai, 31 January 2013) is ill-shaped and almots sticked with the “normal” one — and thus quite different from Giglioli’ drawing with two seemingly functional fins, separated from one another by several metres.

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