Nicholas D. Pyenson

Dr. Nicholas Pyenson is the Curator of Fossil Marine Mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and studies the paleobiology of marine mammals, and, more broadly, of other marine tetrapods. The evolution of whales, for example, is just one case of several mammalian lineages that have made a series of independent transitions from terrestrial to marine lifestyles at different times during the past 55 million years. Each group of marine mammals has undergone dramatic evolutionary transformations from their terrestrial ancestries, with attendant modifications to multiple anatomical, behavioral and ecological systems. These multiple transitions provide a series of evolutionary comparisons that form the basis for understanding how marine mammals have diversified in the oceans.

Nick is also interested in the evolutionary and ecological histories of other marine tetrapods, four-limbed animals, that have that made the great transition from life on land to life in the sea. The scope of these investigations primarily focuses on marine rocks from the Cenozoic, including a broad array of field localities in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

Expedition to Excavate a Fossil Whale

The first thing the researchers did when they arrived on site was outline the general excavation area and take careful measurements of exposed fossils. Next, they applied acrylic glue to any exposed bone to help stabilize it...

At STRI, No Whales Yet, But There Are Fossil Sea Cows...

Before heading out to the fossil locality in Piña, Panama on the Caribbean coast, the team of researchers have a full breakfast at a cantina by the side of the road: roasted chicken, plantains, and some coffee. Credit: Jorge...

Fossil Whale Found, Excavated, Jacketed, and Returned to STRI!

A time-lapse video of the excavation of an extinct toothed whale on a Panamanian beach. Jorge and I packed up the night we arrived in Panama with Aaron O'Dea and his team from STRI . The road we took in two field vehicles...

New Archaeocetes from Peru Are the Oldest Fossil Whales from South America

Offshore Peru, during the Eocene (~56-34 million years ago), showing two archaeocetes (ancient whales): Ocucajea picklingi (above) and Supayacetus muizoni (below). Credit: Carl Buell, http://carlbuell.com The evolution of...

Excavating a "toothed" baleen whale from Vancouver Island

Nick Pyenson, the Smithsonian's curator of fossil marine mammals, points to the skull and skeleton of a 23-25 million year old fossil "toothed" mysticete whale. Credit: NDP and J. A. Goldbogen/SI The whales that we see in...

Dispatches from the Field: Treacherous stream crossings and a new fossil find

Nick Pyenson, curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, holds an arm bone from a "toothed" mysticete from Vancouver Island. Credit: J. A. Goldbogen Editor's note: Read Nick's...

Whale fossils on the mainland, and into a CT scanner

Gabor Szathmary secures one of the plaster jackets containing a fossil "toothed" mysticete that was excavated on Vancouver Island. After a few long days of hard work on the island, we were finally able to excavate and remove...