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Good Reads  Palaeontology  Palaeozoology & Extinctions

Spying on Whales The Past, Present and Future of the World's Largest Animals

Popular Science
By: Nicholas Pyenson(Author), Alex Boersma(Illustrator)
322 pages, b/w illustrations
Combining vivid travelogue and well-written popular science, Spying on Whales tells of whale palaeontology and how it informs cetacean studies today.
Spying on Whales
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  • Spying on Whales ISBN: 9780008244507 Paperback May 2019 In stock
  • Spying on Whales ISBN: 9780008244460 Hardback Jun 2018 Out of Print #239587
Selected version: £9.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

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.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Combines vivid travelogue and pop science
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 28 Jun 2019 Written for Paperback

    It should have been a straightforward expedition. As a young career palaeontologist, Nick Pyenson found himself in the Atacama desert of Chile, tasked with mapping rock layers to establish a continuous chronology that would help dating fossils found in the area. Whale fossils, Pyenson’s speciality, are rarely found complete, which is true of most fossils. So what do you do when a colleague takes you to the construction site of a new highway and shows you not one, not several, but literally dozens of complete fossil whale skeletons? It represented a treasure trove for science, but retrieving the material before the highway constructors would move in was also a daunting, labour-intensive task that could make or break careers. I almost found myself standing next to Pyenson in the dusty clearing, the Chilean sun beating down on me as he faced this dilemma. This is just one of several immersive narratives recounted in Spying on Whales, which successfully blends travelogue and popular science.

    Pyenson, as curator of the fossil marine mammal collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, is uniquely placed to write a book like this. The museum houses the world’s largest collection of fossil whale remains and related documentation and publications, and he is intimately familiar with it. Although the first part of Spying on Whales covers how whales evolved from land-dwelling creatures to become the ocean-dwelling giants of today, this book is not a nuts-and-bolts technical account (see instead the readable introductions offered by Return to the Sea and The Walking Whales). Even so, this book adds new information to this rapidly developing field, including a detailed first-hand account of the revolutionary fossil site of Cerro Ballena described in the first paragraph.

    Another question informed by palaeontology is how and why whales became so big. As it turns out, gigantism is only a recent development in the approximately 50-million year evolutionary history of whales. The search for clues takes the reader from the blood-stained deck of an Icelandic whaling station to study the finer details of feeding and jaw mechanics up-close (including the chance discovery of a sensory organ in the chin of filter-feeding whales that had escaped everyone’s attention so far), to the waters surrounding Alaska to tag humpback whales to learn more about their feeding behaviours. Along the way, Pyenson covers the theoretical underpinnings of gigantism, including Cope’s rule, allometry (the study of biological scaling, see the classic On Growth and Form and limits imposed by physics, something which West touched on in Scale.

    The last part of the book looks at the uncertain future for many whale species. Having barely recovered from the onslaught of industrial whaling, whales now face new challenges from increased shipping, waste, and chemical and noise pollution. There is a very interesting chapter on shifting baselines. Originally coined in the context of overfishing (see my reviews of Vanishing Fish and All the Boats on the Ocean), it indicates how each successive generation of humans accepts degraded ecosystems as the new normal, forgetting what the past was like. Some of this ties in with the groundbreaking work on top-down trophic cascades involving orcas, sea otters, sea urchins, and kelp forests that James A. Estes recounted in Serendipity. Sea urchins eat kelp. When otters were reintroduced following overhunting for fur, kelp forests rebounded. With the disappearance of larger prey items, orcas have in turn, however, started snacking on sea otters. This raises the question of what orcas were eating before industrial whaling. It has been suggested that many large whales were on the menu. Whaling in that sense has impoverished the seas in ways we did not even imagine, which is a perfect example of shifting baselines (see also Whales, Whaling, and Ocean Ecosystems).

    A final touch worth mentioning are Alex Boersma’s fine illustrations, mostly linocuts, that were commissioned specifically for this book. She has a deft hand in creating illustrations that are both stylish and informative, her bubble-net diagram on page 115 being a particularly good example.

    Spying on Whales is a perfect mix of both science and the stories behind it, laying bare the hardships, teamwork, and effort involved. Pyenson’s narrative is very readable and the personal experiences he recounts are particularly vividly written. I finished the book pretty much in one sitting and highly recommend it, whether you have an interest in palaeontology or whales.
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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.

Popular Science
By: Nicholas Pyenson(Author), Alex Boersma(Illustrator)
322 pages, b/w illustrations
Combining vivid travelogue and well-written popular science, Spying on Whales tells of whale palaeontology and how it informs cetacean studies today.
Media reviews

"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

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