April 9, 2021
It’s not difficult to grasp why whales have captured human imagination. Operating at physiological extremes, their mysterious lives beneath the water’s surface can make whales seem otherworldly. On the other hand, we also recognize something of ourselves in their undeniable intelligence and behaviors. To really understand where they came from and where they’re going, we need to dig into their evolutionary history, and the past whale worlds that they inhabited for the last 50 million years. That context is crucial for knowing their lives today, and understanding the many threats to the over 80 species of whales that share our planet with us. Despite the impact of climate change and the looming shadow of extinction, new technologies will continue to give us better windows into the hidden lives of whales, past, present, and future.
Dr. Nick Pyenson is a research geologist and the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. His expeditions have taken him to every continent studying the evolution and ecology of marine mammals. Along with his collaborators, he has named over a dozen new fossil species, discovered the richest fossil whale graveyard on the planet, and described an entirely new sensory organ in living whales. His scientific discoveries have been featured on the cover of the journals Science and Nature, and his research has received the highest awards from the Smithsonian, along with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the White House. His popular book describing his work, “Spying on Whales,” was featured on US national television and radio, and included in many best science book compilations and shortlisted for several awards. He completed his postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia, and received his doctoral degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Pyenson is a National Geographic Explorer and a member of the Young Scientists community at the World Economic Forum.