Nicholas Pyenson

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Nicholas Pyenson is a paleontologist and the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. He is the author of numerous popular science works including the book Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures.[1]

Nicholas Pyenson
Nicholas D. Pyenson

NationalityUnited States
Alma materUniversity of California, Berkeley (PhD)
Emory University (BS)
AwardsPresidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers
World Economic Forum Young Scientist Award
Scientific career
FieldsPaleontology, Cetology
InstitutionsNational Museum of Natural History


Pyenson received a Bachelor's Degree from Emory University. In 2002, Pyenson moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where he received a Ph.D. in Integrative Biology in 2008, advised by Anthony Barnosky and David R. Lindberg. During this time, he was also working in the University of California Museum of Paleontology.[2] Pyenson's interest in whales led him to his dissertation topic, "Understanding the paleoecology and evolution of cetaceans in the Eastern North Pacific Ocean during the Neogene."[3] Following his PhD, Pyenson completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia.[4]

Research and careerEdit

Pyenson's research centers focuses on evolutionary patterns in marine animals through time, with a particular focus on patterns of convergent evolution in whales, but has also studied sea-cows, sea turtles, pinnipeds, sharks, and other marine animals. Pyenson has published over 70 scientific publications, including cover articles in the journals Science and Nature, studying questions about the evolution of body size in papers like "Why whales are big but not bigger: Physiological drivers and ecological limits in the age of ocean giants" (2019) and "Early and fast rise of Mesozoic ocean giants" (2021).[5] In 2012, Pyenson and colleagues reported the discovery of a novel sensory organ that facilitates the behavior in some rorqual baleen whales known as "lunge feeding".[6] Other work has developed the understanding of the odontocete melon, a structure involved in echolocation.[7]

In 2017, Pyenson was awarded a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers by President Barack Obama,[8] and has won numerous research awards from the Smithsonian, including the Secretary’s Research Prize. Pyenson is a member of the Young Scientists community at the World Economic Forum, a Kavli Fellow at the National Academy of Sciences, and a Fulbright Specialist at the US State Department.[4][9]

Writing and mediaEdit

Pyenson's writing on topics from whales to science and society have appeared in publications such as The New York Times,[10] Scientific American,[11] Smithsonian (magazine),[12] and The Washington Post.[13] His work has been the subject of articles in publications including National Geographic,[14] The New York Times,[15] The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, NPR[16] and more.

His book, Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures (Viking Press, 2018) was called “the best of science writing” by noted biologist E. O. Wilson, was positively reviewed by NPR[17] and The New York Times,[18] and was a finalist in 2019 for the Best Young Adult Science Book from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.[19]


  1. ^ "Spying on Whales by Nick Pyenson: 9780735224582 | Books". Retrieved 2022-06-27.
  2. ^ "Whale of a story for a Berkeley grad student and colleagues". Berkeley Graduate Division. 2007-12-11. Retrieved 2022-06-28.
  3. ^ "Understanding the paleoecology and evolution of cetaceans in the eastern North Pacific Ocean during the Neogene - ProQuest". Retrieved 2022-06-27.
  4. ^ a b "People | Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History". Retrieved 2022-06-28.
  5. ^ Delsett, Lene Liebe; Pyenson, Nicholas D. (2021-12-24). "Early and fast rise of Mesozoic ocean giants". Science. 374 (6575): 1554–1555. doi:10.1126/science.abm3751. ISSN 0036-8075.
  6. ^ Pyenson, Nicholas D.; Goldbogen, Jeremy A.; Vogl, A. Wayne; Szathmary, Gabor; Drake, Richard L.; Shadwick, Robert E. (May 2012). "Discovery of a sensory organ that coordinates lunge feeding in rorqual whales". Nature. 485 (7399): 498–501. doi:10.1038/nature11135. ISSN 1476-4687.
  7. ^ McKenna, Megan F.; Cranford, Ted W.; Berta, Annalisa; Pyenson, Nicholas D. (October 2012). "Morphology of the odontocete melon and its implications for acoustic function". Marine Mammal Science. 28 (4): 690–713. doi:10.1111/j.1748-7692.2011.00526.x.
  8. ^ "Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) (Pyenson, Nicholas - 2017)". Retrieved 2022-06-28.
  9. ^ "Nick Pyenson | Penguin Random House". Retrieved 2022-06-28.
  10. ^ Pyenson, Nick (2018-06-23). "Opinion | Wrap Your Mind Around a Whale". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-06-28.
  11. ^ Dehgan, Nick Pyenson,Alex. "More Scientists Should Join the Diplomatic Corps". Scientific American. Retrieved 2022-06-28.
  12. ^ Magazine, Smithsonian. "How Long Have Sea Cows Thrived in the Arabian Gulf? We Literally Stumbled on a Clue". Retrieved 2022-06-28.
  13. ^ Pyenson, Nick (2019-12-28). "We learned a lot about whales this year". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2022-06-28.
  14. ^ "The Tiny Culprit Behind A Graveyard of Ancient Whales". Science. 2014-02-25. Retrieved 2022-06-28.
  15. ^ Imbler, Sabrina (2021-12-23). "This Sea Lizard Had a Grand Piano-Size Head and a Big Appetite". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-06-28.
  16. ^ Sofia, Madeline K. (2017-06-07). "Travel Through Time With A Whale Detective". NPR. Retrieved 2022-06-28.
  17. ^ "Scientists Are 'Spying On Whales' To Learn How They Eat, Talk And ... Walked?". Retrieved 2022-06-28.
  18. ^ Strauss, Duncan (2018-10-05). "No Fins or Mask Needed: Four New Books Take Underwater Journeys". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-06-28.
  19. ^ "Spying on Whales". AAAS/Subaru Prize for Excellence in Science Books. Retrieved 2022-06-28.