Nicholas Pyenson is the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. He is a vertebrate paleontologist whose research focuses on major land-to-sea ecological transitions in the past 250 million years. In this span of geologic time, many different lineages of reptiles and mammals—whales, sea cows, mosasaurs and turtles, for example—have independently entered the oceans, showing both common patterns and unique solutions to the challenges of living the life aquatic.
To understand how and why these ecological transitions have happened, Pyenson has studied many different aspects of marine vertebrates, including their biomechanics and paleobiology. At the Smithsonian, he tends to the world’s largest collection of fossil marine mammals and contributes to it with field programs around the world, including most recently on Vancouver Island in Canada and in the Atacama Desert of Chile.
Pyenson is particularly interested in growing public appreciation for all natural assets and fossils, especially through the use of digital tools that can expand fieldwork, outreach and natural history collections at the same time.
The results of Pyenson’s investigations have covered a broad range of scientific disciplines. He is the author of more than 30 scientific papers, including several in the journals Nature and Science. His research has also been featured in the New York Times, Smithsonian, The Economist and on international public radio programs for NPR and CBC.
Pyenson received his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley; he completed a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of British Columbia.
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