Whales are among the largest, most intelligent, deepest diving species to have ever lived on our planet. We have hunted them for thousands of years and scratched their icons into our mythologies. They simultaneously fill us with waves of terror, awe and affection – yet we know hardly anything about them.
Whales tend to only enter our awareness when they die, struck by a ship or stranded in the surf. They evolved from land-roaming, dog-like creatures into animals that move like fish, breathe like us, can grow to 300,000 pounds, live 200 years and roam entire ocean basins. Yet despite centuries of observing whales, we know little about their evolutionary past.
In this remarkable new book, the Smithsonian's star palaeontologist Nick Pyenson takes us to the ends of the earth and to the cutting edge of whale research as he searches for the answers to some of our biggest questions about these graceful giants. His rich storytelling takes us deep inside the Smithsonian's unparalleled fossil collection, to frigid Antarctic waters, and to the arid desert of Chile, where scientists race against time to document the largest fossil whalebone site on earth.
Spying on Whales is an illuminating story of scientific discovery that brings readers closer to the most enigmatic and beloved animals of all time.
Nicholas Pyenson is the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. His scientific research focuses on how different kinds of four-limbed animals have repeatedly invaded oceans from land ancestry over the past 250 million years – an evolutionary cross-section of vertebrate life that includes sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals, including whales. A National Geographic Explorer, he has done scientific fieldwork on every continent and led over a dozen scientific expeditions during the last decade.
"Spying on Whales represents the best of science writing. The subject is inherently fascinating, the author is an authentic scientist by virtue of his personal research on the subject, and the text reads like the epic it truly is."
– Edward O. Wilson, Pulitzer Prize-winner and New York Times bestselling author of The Origins of Creativity and The Meaning of Human Existence
"Reading Spying on Whales leaves a strong impression, based on the principles of ecology, evolution and physiology, that a world including whales seems awesomely improbable. And, of course, wonderful. Nick Pyenson guides us through this world, and in the process achieves that rare state of grace for a writer of science – producing prose that is both scientific and beautiful. This is a moving, informative, evocative book."
– Robert Sapolsky, author of Behave