Dr. Nick Pyenson, paleontologist and author of “Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures”

by | Nov 21, 2018

Dr. Nick Pyenson—the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, and the author of “Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures”—traces his interest in fossils to his childhood, when his parents would take him to natural history museums, experiences he called “formative.” (Seems so, since he now works at a natural history museum….) Pyenson recalls when his fascination with whales began, and describes what the first whales looked like: four-legged land dwellers about the size of a large dog, going on to chart the evolution of these mammals, spanning 50 million years. He responds to my observation that, in addition to more meaty, extensive explorations, the book is also brimming with fascinating tidbits and asides—for example, when Pyenson notes that hippos are the closest living relatives to whales. Or, that some whales can be left- or right-handed. In multiple spots across the pages of “Spying On Whales,” Pyenson chronicles research he’s undertaken with living whales—in the opening of the book, he sketches a scene where he and some colleagues are near the Antarctic Peninsula, studying humpback whales, emblematic, he explains, of his firm conviction that it’s important that a paleontologist (or, at least, he) be out in the field, engaging in some sort of research. Still, bones are close to his heart: Pyenson tells an abbreviated version of the story (that I suggest constitutes the heart, if not the soul, of the book) in which he realizes that the Atacama Desert area of Chile housed some 40 complete whale skeletons—a bone bonanza wholly unprecedented in his nearly 20-year career, during which he’d never found one—yet there was a ticking clock to unearthing and studying the skeletons, all of which made for an exhilarating and cinematic set of passages. (https://paleobiology.si.edu/staff/individuals/pyenson.html)

ALSO: I spoke with Don Goldstein, our longtime “greyhound correspondent,” in our first conversation since Amendment 13 passed. He offered a post-13 assessment, with an emphasis on addressing the doubt, confusion and misinformation surrounding what will happen to the dogs as racing is phased out by 2020—and debunking the dire scenarios floating around.



COMEDY CORNER:  Brian Regan’s “Whale Noises”   (http://brianregan.com)

MUSIC: Rebekah Pulley’s “Talking Animals Theme,” instrumentals

NAME THAT ANIMAL TUNE: We didn’t play “Name That Animal Tune” today.


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