January 2014 dinner talk was on whales

Nicholas D. Pyenson of the Smithsonian Institution spoke on “The life and death of whales: new discoveries about the world’s largest animals” at the ECWG’s Jan. 18, 2014 dinner at the Cosmos Club.

Whales, like other marine mammals, evolved from terrestrial ancestors. In today’s world, they are dominant predators in ocean food webs. How did this macroevolutionary story happen? Pyenson, curator at the Smithsonian and Distinguished Lecturer for the Paleontological Society, shared recent discoveries about the evolution of whales, based on his fieldwork in Iceland and South America.

He will also showed  how new 3D tools can play an important role in sharing these discoveries.

Nicholas D. Pyenson

Pyenson is the curator of fossil marine mammals in the Department of Paleobiology in Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, with special expertise in the evolution of marine mammals. He grew up in both Quebec and Louisiana.

While in college, he took a variety of field courses in botany, stream ecology, and human paleoecology (the latter which took him to Africa), convincing him that combining science and the outdoors (and especially with international travel), was a good way to spend time.

After earning his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley in 2008, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia before joining the Smithsonian in 2010.

At the Smithsonian he tends to the world’s largest collection of fossil marine mammals, and he contributes to it with field programs around the world, including most recently on Vancouver Island in Canada, and with South American collaborators in the Atacama Desert of Chile.

Pyenson thinks that marine mammals — such as whales, sea cows and sea lions — are ready-made vehicles for enhancing a deeper understanding of fundamentals in evolutionary biology and earth sciences. He is especially interested in using digital tools that can expand fieldwork, outreach and natural history collections all at the same time.

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