John Edward Gray grew up in a time of unprecedented scientific discovery. His role as an intensely curious and involved scientist helped propel the sciences, biology especially, to a level of new appreciation by the end of the era. In 1828, he described the Spinner Dolphin for the first time. His initial descriptions and indexes of these animals needed tweaking, however, revealing a tedious yet important aspect of the scientific naming process. His work in general, and especially regarding Spinner Dolphins, has provided modern scientists with a platform on which to expand.
John Edward Gray was an Englishman born in 1800 to a world where “biology held but a small place in popular favour (sic)” (Nature). Gray played a fundamental role in the advances of biological sciences at this time, succeeding “in bringing the national [British] collection of osteological and skin specimens… to so high a standard of excellence, that no other museum… [was] equal to it” (Nature). He published many summary indexes of mammals, birds, marine life, and reptiles through the British Museum while also holding the post of Keeper of Zoology at the newly established Natural History Museum in England (Natural).
Gray discovered the Spinner Dolphin, or Stenella longitostris, in 1828. However, at the time he did not quite realize what an amazing discovery he had made. In his initial description, Gray names his discovery Delphinus longirostris and notes the differences between this specimen and the already classified Delphinus delphis:
“‘The beak is more slender and depressed… the palate bone more strongly keeled… the elevated central process of the upper surface of the beak broad and convex. Length of the head 6 inches; beak 11 ½, Breadth of the latter at its base 3 inches’” (Bree).
The specimen itself appears to have been a skull from a private London collection owned by D. Brookes (Bree).
While 1828 is the year of his original descriptions of spinner dolphins, his published works such as the Synopsis of the Species of Whales and Dolphins in the Collection of the British Museum (1868) and the Catalogue of Seals and Whales in the British Museum (1866) lack a category for Stenella (Gray). Instead, they reference “Tribe(s)” such as “Stenoninae” and especially “Delphinina” with sub-tribe “Clymenia” under which the spinners were lumped before Gray authored the separate genus Stenella in 1866 (Perrin). The habitats for the species within these families and tribes were noted as largely Pacific, with some habitats near India, Brazil, Cape Horn, and British Guiana (Gray, Synopses).No species was identified as being strictly Hawai’ian on the grounds of limited survey technology and knowledge about the species. In addition, Hawaii was outside of European contact until the explorer James Cook arrived at the islands in 1778 so its lack of mention as a specific habitat is understandable.
While Gray’s findings could be referred to as the foundation on which “we started to accumulate knowledge of the pieces of the spinner dolphin life history,” the confusion regarding the breakdown of the Stenella genus and the Spinner species pervaded even into the 20th Century (Heenehan). In 1966, the genus was considered a “taxonomic wastebasket from which it was not possible to separate the various species in any logical way” (Norris et al.). However, more research regarding the habitats, habits, life histories, and threats posed to spinner dolphins from the late 1960s to now has expanded on Gray’s discovery and we are now beginning to piece together a better understanding of these animals.
Bree, van P.J.H.; Perrin, W.F. “On the diagnosis of the Spinner Dolphin, Stenella longirostris (Gray, 1828) and its holotype.” Zoologische Mededelingen, 52,21. 1977.
Gray, John Edward. Catalogue of Seals and Whales in the British Museum. The Trustees of the British Museum, London, 1866. v-vii.
Gray, John Edward. Synopses of the Species of Whales and Dolphins in the Collection of the British Museum. Taylor and Francis, London, 1868. 1-10.
“Gray, John Edward, F.R.S.” Nature. Nature Publishing Group, 11 March 1875. 368.
Heenehan, Heather L. “Life History of the Spinner Dolphins: The Stenellas and the Spinners.” SAPPHIRE: Spinner dolphin acoustics, populations parameters and human Impacts research. Accessed 8/5/2012.
Natural History Museum Archives, The. “Administration History.” The Natural History Museum, 2012. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/library/archives/catalogue
Norris, Kenneth S.; B. Würsig, R. S. Wells, M. Würsig. The Hawaiian Spinner Dolphin. University of California Press, London, 1994. 15-18.
Perrin, William. Delphinidae. In: Perrin, W.F. (2012) World Cetacea Database. Accessed through: World Register of Marine Species at http://www.marinespecies.org/aphia.php?p=taxdetails&id=136980 on 2012-08-05
Perrin, William. Stenella longirostris. In: Perrin, W.F. (2012) World Cetacea Database. Accessed through: World Register of Marine Species at http://www.marinespecies.org/aphia.php?p=taxdetails&id=137109 on 2012-08-05
Perrin, William. Stenonina. In: Perrin, W.F. World Cetacea Database. Accessed through: World Register of Marine Species at http://www.marinespecies.org/aphia.php?p=taxdetails&id=383334 on 2012-08-05.
Photo Credit: Portait of Dr John Edward Gray, a British zoologist. Photographed by Maull & Polyblank, Photographers. Ca 1854.http://piclib.nhm.ac.uk/results.asp?image=002894&itemw=4&itemf=0001&itemstep=1&itemx=47