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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Department of Paleobiology

  • Nicholas D. Pyenson
  • Curator of Fossil Marine Mammals
  • Phone:   202-633-1366
  • Fax:   202-786-2832
  • E-mail Address:   pyensonn
  • Mailing Address:
    Smithsonian Institution
    PO Box 37012, MRC 121
    Washington, DC 20013-7012
  • Shipping Address:
    Smithsonian Institution
    National Museum of Natural History
    10th & Constitution NW
    Washington, DC 20560-0121


Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley, 2008
B.S. Emory University, 2002
A.A. Oxford College of Emory University, 2000

Research Interests

I study the paleobiology of marine mammals, and, more broadly, of other marine tetrapods. The evolution of whales, for example, is just one case of several mammalian lineages that have made a series of independent transitions from terrestrial to marine lifestyles at different times during the past 55 million years. Each group of marine mammals has undergone dramatic evolutionary transformations from their terrestrial ancestries, with attendant modifications to multiple anatomical, behavioral and ecological systems. These multiple transitions provide a series of evolutionary comparisons that form the basis for understanding how marine mammals have diversified in the oceans. By extension, I am also interested in the evolutionary and ecological histories of other marine tetrapods -- four-limbed animals that have that made the great transition from life on land to life in the sea. The scope of these investigations primarily focuses on marine rocks from the Cenozoic, including a broad array of field localities in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

Also, see my Pyenson Lab website.

Recent Presentations

Suarez, M.E., M. Cozzuol, C. S. Gutstein, J. Le Roux, J. F. Parham, D. Rubilar Rogers, N. D. Pyenson. 2011. New discoveries from the Bahia Inglesa Formation bonebed, a Late Miocene marine vertebrate assemblage from the Atacama Desert of Chile. Sixth Triennial Conference on Secondary Adaptation of Tetrapods to Life in Water, San Diego, California, pp. 74-75.

Davis, E., and N.D. Pyenson. 2010. Using the high fidelity of cetacean strandings to reveal the spatiotemporal scales of cetacean macroecology. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30(3 Suppl.): 79A

Wedel, M.J., and Pyenson, N.D. 2010. The evolution of gigantism in sauropods and whales: contrasting solutions to common problems. International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology (ICVM-9), Punta del Este, Uruguay, meeting proceedings.

Recent Publications

Pyenson, N.D., and D.R. Lindberg. 2011. What happened to gray whales during the Pleistocene? The ecological impact of sea-level change on benthic feeding areas in the North Pacific Ocean. PLoS ONE 6(7): e21295. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0021295.

Pyenson, N. D. 2011. The high fidelity of the cetacean stranding record: insights into measuring diversity by integrating taphonomy and macroecology. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0441

Goldbogen, J. A., J. Calambokidis, J. A. Hildebrand, E. Oleson, J. Potvin, N. D. Pyenson, G. Schorr, and R. E. Shadwick. 2011. Mechanics, hydrodynamics and energetics of blue whale lunge feeding: efficiency dependence on krill density. Journal of Experimental Biology 214:131-146.

Pyenson, N. D., R. B. Irmis, and J. H. Lipps. 2010. Comment on "Climate, Critters, and Cetaceans: Cenozoic Drivers of the Evolution of Modern Whales." Science 330: 178-a.

Pyenson, N. D. 2010. Carcasses on the coast: measuring the ecological fidelity of the cetacean stranding record in eastern North Pacific Ocean. Paleobiology 36(3): 453–480.

Parham, J. F., and N. D. Pyenson. 2010. New sea turtle from the Miocene of Peru and the iterative evolution of feeding ecomorphologies since the Cretaceous. Journal of Paleontology 84(2): 231-247.

Pyenson, N. D., R. B. Irmis, L. G. Barnes, E. D. Mitchell, Jr., S. A. McLeod, and J. H. Lipps. 2009. The origin of a widespread marine bonebed deposited during the Middle Miocene Climatic Optimum. Geology 37(6): 519-522. [Cover article]

Pyenson, N. D. 2009. Requiem for Lipotes: An evolutionary perspective on marine mammal extinction. Marine Mammal Science 25(3): 714–724.