Scientific Colloquium
October 3, 2018, 3:30 p.m.
Building 3, Goett Auditorium

"The Past, Present, and Future of Whales" 

Whales have intrigued us for millenia. They are among the largest, most intelligent, deepest diving species to have ever lived on our planet. They evolved from land-roaming ancestors, and today can grow to 300,000 pounds, live 200 years, and travel entire ocean basins. Whales fill us with awe, terror, and affection -- we have even inscribed their song on interstellar spacecraft -- but because they live 99% of their lives underwater, they remain mysteries to us. My talk will pull from stories in my book (SPYING ON WHALES), featuring recent and forthcoming research from the frontlines of science discovery about whales. The book follows a three-part arc about whales, first to reveal their evolutionary origins, then to figure out their ecological role today, and then finally their future on planet Earth in the age of humans. The stories will take place from the halls of the Smithsonian’s peerless fossil collections, to a frigid Icelandic whaling station, to the Atacama Desert where my colleagues and I raced against time to document the world’s richest fossil whale graveyard. I share how scientists measure and collect whalebones, tag whales, and how new technology, such as 3D printing and drones, place us firmly in the golden age of whale science. Why and how did they evolve to such enormous sizes? How did their ancestors return from land to the sea? What do their lives tell us about our oceans and about evolution as a whole? How have hundreds of years of whaling affected their population, and what does climate change mean for their survival? My talk will examine and tackle all of these questions.
About the Speaker:

NICK PYENSON is curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. As a paleontologist, his scientific research focuses on the repeated and convergent evolution of marine life, including many of the hallmark traits of iconic species such as sea turtles, sea cows, and especially whales. His scientific expeditions have taken him to every continent, combining specimen-based research and anatomical investigations with international mentorship and 3D digitization for museum collections. This work has led to the discovery of a dozen new species of fossil vertebrates, the richest fossil whale graveyard on the planet, and an entirely new sensory organ in living whales. His writing and scientific discoveries frequently appear in the New York Times, the New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Popular Mechanics, USA Today, on the Today Show, and also NPR, CBC, and the BBC. Along with the highest research awards from the Smithsonian, he has also received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the Obama White House in 2017. The Pulitzer Prize winner E. O. Wilson called his first book, SPYING ON WHALES (Viking, 2018), “the best of science writing,” and a paperback edition will be published by Penguin Press in 2019.

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