In this engaging book, Nick Pyenson waxes poetic about whales, weaving in often astonishing facts about them (and many other organisms – this book is not just about whales) with a compelling narrative focused not only on these enormous yet enigmatic creatures themselves, but also on the discoveries he and his various scientific teams have made. He highlights both the interdisciplinary nature of science – as his research questions are often at the boundaries of paleontology, ecology, behavior, and physiology, to name a few disciplines – and the collaborative nature of scientific research. He also touches on larger-scale processes like plate tectonics, earth rotations, and ocean currents and how they affect whales. The book is divided into three parts: past (the largest part), present, and future. Each part starts with a historical story, and the main text ends on page 256; the rest of the book consists of a very helpful short primer called “A family tree of whales,” detailed footnotes, and an index.
Taking us behind the scenes of the Smithsonian collections, to tagging whales in Antarctica, to fossil hunting in the Atacama Desert, Pyenson manages to convey the drama – and occasional urgency – of paleontological research (even including the delicate art of preparing fossils) without hyperbole or exaggeration. This may seem counterintuitive; after all, the fossils aren't going anywhere, right? What could be urgent? But what happens when your team only has a single day to retrieve a fossil whale skull on the shores of Panama? Or a month to excavate over a dozen nearly complete whale skeletons in Chile to try to figure out how they all got there (I won't spoil that surprise)? Pyenson also describes the challenge of taking even basic measurements of whale bones – um, these things are huge – and how 3D scanning and CT technology can help to both document and understand modern and fossil whales.
“Bones tell stories,” Pyenson notes, and he is a consummate bone storyteller. He tells epic tales of discoveries and the people who made them, fossil bones and how they are used to understand the biology and behavior of extinct organisms, and the anatomy of whales and what it means for their adaptations. With the aid of several black-and-white line drawings and useful analogies for the immensity in scale and size, he conveys vividly realistic images of whales opening their giant mouths to gulp in huge amounts of water and food and the detective work it takes to identify a shark bite on an ancient dolphin rib – actual fossilized behavior. He marvels at the huge distances whales migrate, the ability of some whales to navigate using underwater echolocation, and their early origin in creatures the size of dogs that lived on land, and takes the reader on an amazing trip basically inside a whale skull, describing its anatomy.
In the second and third parts of the book, Pyenson is matter-of-fact about the enormous impact human-caused climate change has had on whales, and how what we think of as “baseline” whale populations are likely themselves severely depressed from the (geologically) short time before human whaling decimated the numbers of many whale species. He is forthright about his unease working with the whaling community in order to gather fundamental ecological and anatomical data on whales, and he does a commendable job explaining what factors go into using the past to try to predict the future for whales. He details how, because of their long life spans, whales can be “time machines,” recording long-term information about their environments. This can also, sadly, put them at risk for accumulating pollutants in their soft tissues.
All the while, Pyenson subtly but explicitly corrects evolutionary misconceptions by explaining the process of evolution and the costs and benefits inherent in this process – for instance, the evolution of immense size in whales. He accurately conveys the thought processes of paleontologists, and how they can look at old bones to reconstruct complex food webs and ecosystems, outlining the difference between “how” questions (the ones that science can sometimes answer) and “why” questions (the ones it usually cannot). He notes the history of some of the major discoveries in whale evolution – while also sharing all paleontologists' frustration at the incomplete nature of the fossil record. He conveys the serendipity in scientific discovery, which can be the result of years of careful, hard work – or pure chance. As Pyenson notes, several species of whales are still known from a single skull washed up on a beach, and fossilization is “game of probabilities.”
After reading this book, I am equally fascinated by how much we know about whales and how much we still don't know about their biology and evolution. I am enamored of the new facts about whales in my arsenal: they have culture, are most closely related to hippos, underwent a 10,000× body-size increase over time, and can live for over 200 years. I now know how whale poop really matters to the ocean ecosystem – and how whalefalls (dead whales falling to the ocean floor) can create entire ecosystems of their own, providing sustenance to tiny sea creatures for potentially a century or more. One of the things I like most about this book is that it is peppered with questions, as scientific investigations are. Many go unanswered, likely the topics of future PhD theses. Others are answered by Pyenson using the best available data, and he is clear about when he crosses the line from evidence-based conclusions to informed speculation. This book would be appropriate reading for AP Biology or college-level students.
AMANDA L. GLAZE is an Assistant Professor of Middle Grades & Secondary Science Education at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia. In addition to science teacher education, she has taught courses in biological sciences for grades 7–12 and undergraduate students over the last twelve years. Her interests include evolutionary biology, science and religion, and the intersections of science and society – specifically where scientific understandings are deemed controversial by the public. Glaze holds degrees in science education from the University of Alabama and Jacksonville State University. Her address is Department of Teaching & Learning, Georgia Southern University, P.O. Box 8134, Statesboro, GA 30458; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.