Among the Whales: Five Questions for Nicholas D. Pyenson

Nick Pyenson’s office in the depths of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History is crammed with stuff. Fossils — real and 3D-printed — large skulls, and miniscule bones are piled next to books, files and folders, along with many, many boxes. Which isn’t surprising, given that Pyenson is the museum’s curator of fossil marine mammals and a paleobiologist who has spent much of the past 20 years in the field. “It’s a mess because discoveries are happening at every moment,” a colleague quips.

Pyenson is particularly fascinated by whales, a passion he chronicles in his first book, “Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures.” He has researched on every continent to learn about these mega-mammals, the largest creatures ever to live on earth, and how they evolved from their four-legged ancestors.

Three central questions guide the book: How did whales’ ancestors evolve from land creatures to the marine mammals we recognize today? How did whales get to be so big? And in the age of humans, will whales survive?

For this installment of the Undark Five, I spoke with Pyenson about whale lore and his own past, present, and future, from the legacies of his predecessors to the technologies that are revolutionizing his work. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.

Undark: You cover a lot of material in your book. When did you first start to think that you wanted to write a book, and how did you decide which stories to share?

Nick Pyenson: I feel like facts are not enough these days, and I think that people are hungry for the behind-the-scenes stories. There’s not enough first-person, inner-life of the scientist accounts. Usually you hear stories like this from end-of-career standpoints: you rarely get to hear from it from someone who is still doing it.

A lot of [the book] is very selfish in that it’s for my own sake to remember those stories; I think everybody feels that way, like: “I had a crazy time in the field. Do you remember that time…?” But the times I’ve written about are really crazy because of the logistics and context: Chile, Iceland, Antarctica, and the things that we did that became discoveries — I think of high-level importance, the gems in your career.

UD: It struck me that every section of the book is like a mystery in itself. How are the discoveries of a paleontologist like a detective’s?

NP: Fundamentally, there’s so much we don’t know. And a lot that we can’t actually know. But we live on a planet that is 70 percent ocean on the surface, and you’re telling me that we don’t know anything about most of these large mammals?

Some groups, like the beaked whales, there’s 20 species of them, and most of them are represented by a few skeletons in museums. That is everything that we hang our knowledge on: their entire ecology, life history, biology. There is a skull and some bones. That’s about as much as we know for some of these multi-ton mammals. I think that’s astonishing.

“I feel like facts are not enough these days, and I think that people are hungry for the behind-the-scenes stories.”

So there is mystery, but I also want to communicate that there’s still so much we want to know. Something that I hope happens with the book is that this continues to be a source of inspiration. Yes, there’s the legacy of the collections and research questions, but it’s actually the people that are the most important thing. They will carry on this legacy of investigation.

UD: You mention issues like climate change and fisheries management and their impact on whale populations, but these aren’t topics you deal with at length. That said, do you feel any obligation to raise awareness about whales’ continued struggles against extinction?

NP: The Smithsonian’s mission is the increase and diffusion of knowledge. So I interpret that to mean explore past worlds and think about future worlds. I see my job as a communicator of what we know.

I’m kind of a speaker for the dead, for these objects that don’t say anything outside of their context. My director has a bumper sticker that says, “Natural history museums save the world.” It’s very aspirational, but that is literally true. We take the things out there in the world and save them for future generations.

Part of communicating what is going on — life on earth in the age of humans — does mean actually advocating for something. I think the Arctic is especially useful for illustrating this point. Here’s an ecosystem, a biome, that has been this way for three million years, and we are watching it unravel in human lifetimes.

And there are whales that live way longer than human lifetimes. A whale born today, if it lives 200 years into the future, will see an ocean that none of its ancestors ever saw. That’s a pretty profound thing.

UD: I can imagine some people asking, “Can studying animal bones really tell us anything important?” How would you address that doubt?

NP: I have a good colleague who calls whales “the unlikeliest mammals.” They are kind of like mammals from space because they’re so apart from everything else. [Pyenson points to a dolphin in the museum’s Hall of Mammals.] The closest relative of a dolphin is a hoofed animal. So what is going on there? That tells us evolution happened in a big way, and you can’t know that unless you look at the fossil record.

You can play this game of, “Let’s pretend that we don’t know anything about the past, and we just know about what we see today.” Then we’re missing a lot of the story. We’re missing 99 percent of the tree of life.

In all the different past worlds that we look at, inevitably we find something very different from what we see today. For example, we have fossils of very small baleen whales. We don’t have baleen whales that small today. They’re from past whale worlds.

Today we know that some parts of those past worlds are happening again today: sea level rise, ocean acidification. The real number — which is the parts per million of carbon dioxide concentration — right now is above 400. This last year is the first time that it was consistently above 400 parts per million around the world. The last time in earth history it was that high is 300 million years ago.

In our lifetimes, it’s gone up at least 100 parts per million. There’s no analog for that except in times in the deep past. So if we really want to know what’s going to happen in the future, we actually need to study the past.

UD: The book explains how biologging, tag data, 3D printing, and other technologies are beginning to unfold some aspects of whale mysteries. Can you speculate on how the study of whales is going to change in the next 50 years or so?

NP: The way I like to think about it is, if I could pluck Frederick William True from the 19th century and have him appear magically in my office, he actually would not have a hard time figuring out what I’m doing. But if you tried to explain the internet to him, he would have a hard time. There are some things he wouldn’t get. On my phone, I can talk to colleagues a world away, and they can take photos of things in the field. They can make 3D models, they can capture whole data sets, and you can make a quick decision: collect or no? Drone work for whales is also really important.

A lot of these stories about whales, questions we have, are the stuff of lore. For example, there’s one visual case of a killer whale chomping down on a great white shark and feeding it to its calves. There are no photos from that. There is no video. But now that we live on an instrumented planet, and we have drones up all the time, it’s just a matter of a few years before people start documenting really interesting things.

That’s going to validate the kinds of observations that were just hearsay or anecdotes. These mysteries are tantalizing, and you go from tantalizing to awe-inspiring when you know about it. It’s living in the age of giants.

Tiffany Gibert is a freelance writer and editor living in Washington, D.C.