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Pyenson, Nicholas

Research Geologist and Curator of Fossil Marine Mammals

Evolution and ecology of marine mammals and other marine tetrapods

Geographic Focus

Professional Biography

  • Dr. Nicholas D. Pyenson is a research geologist and curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and completed his postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia. As a paleontologist, his scientific research focuses on the repeated and convergent evolution of marine life, including iconic lineages such as sea turtles, sea cows, and especially whales. His scientific expeditions have taken him to every continent, his discoveries have been exhibited in major museums across the Americas. He is the author of over 70 scientific publications, including cover articles in the journals Science and Nature. His writing and media coverage of his work frequently appear in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, Scientific American, National Geographic, The Economist, and also on NPR, CBC, and the BBC. Along with the highest research awards from the Smithsonian, he has also received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the Obama White House. His popular book describing his work, Spying on Whales, was featured on national television and radio, included in many best science book compilations, shortlisted for several awards. Pyenson is also a member of the Young Scientists community at the World Economic Forum, a Kavli Fellow at the US National Academy of Sciences, and a Fulbright Specialist at the US Department of State.

Public Biography

  • DR. NICK PYENSON is curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. As a paleontologist, his scientific research focuses on the evolution of marine mammals, such as whales. He is also interested in the evolutionary history of other marine animals, such as sea cows, seals, sea turtles, and ichthyosaurs, whose ancestors on land independently invaded the oceans in the past 250 million years. His expeditions have taken him to every continent, with a strong focus on paleontological exploration, anatomical discovery, international mentorship, and 3D digitization for museum collections. The results of his team’s discoveries have been published extensively, including cover articles in the prestigious journals Science and Nature, among others. Along with his collaborators, he has named over a dozen new species of fossil vertebrates, discovered the richest fossil whale graveyard on the planet, and described an entirely new sensory organ in living whales. He received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Barack Obama’s Administration, and the highest research awards from the Smithsonian, including the Secretary’s Research Prize. His popular book describing his work, SPYING ON WHALES: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures, was featured on national television and radio, and included in many best science book compilations. He completed his postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia, received his doctoral degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and has a bachelor’s degree from Emory University. Pyenson is also 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.

awards and honors