Hi! I'm Nick Pyenson a paleontologist that the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. I just published a paper about the massive fossil whale graveyard at Cerro Ballena, in the Atacama Desert in Chile. This amazing site of an ancient marine mammal massacre was caused by toxic algal blooms. You can read more here: http://smithsonianscience.org/2014/02/algae-assassin-found-responsible-for-whale-mass-grave-in-chile/

Ask me about my work, or about ancient marine mammals like walrus whales, aquatic sloths or mini seals. Or what it's like to get paid to dig in the dirt in some pretty cool places.

You can also see high res photos of the Cerro Ballena dig site and play with interactive 3D models of fossils and a quarry map at http://cerroballena.si.edu/

Proof: https://twitter.com/smithsonian/status/439424204749168640/photo/1

ETA Thank you guys for all the awesome questions! I'm sorry I can't do more, but I've got to rush off. Tweet to me @PyensonLab and you can also follow @NMNH for more science fun.

Comments: 934 • Responses: 26  • Date: 

redditninemillion1760 karma

i found this bone on a field trip in middle school. my science teacher at the time told me he thought it was a very old whale vertebrae. is that what you think it is? i always kind of hoped it was a dinosaur bone... http://imgur.com/ma0lNh7,kEDOgfK,cfFbEk2,HeMkG5n,D1LQWOZ,erPgiJI

NickPyenson1695 karma

Whoa! That is a whale vertebra! Probably belongs to a baleen whale. It looks like its fossilized. Where did you find it?

redditninemillion1179 karma

clavert cliffs, MD. stepped on it while wading in shallow water at a beach. how old do you think it is?

NickPyenson2056 karma

Oh, that makes sense. You've found a ~14-11 million year old fossil whale vertebra! The seacliffs along the coast of Calvert County have been a source of marine mammal fossils for over 100 yrs! At the Smithsonian, we have a terrific collection, but so does the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland. Go visit them!

pat131350 karma

What's the weirdest thing in your field of study no one has a good answer for?

NickPyenson509 karma

There isn't one. There are dozens, hundreds of thousands, really. And they're in museum collections around the world. Here's one of my long-time favorites (a shark, not a whale), but from the national collections at the Smithsonian -- Helicoprion:


NickPyenson560 karma

Oh, and of course, something near to my heart: walrus whales. We found one of these guys at Cerro Ballena, reported in the paper we just published on the site -- it's the first discovery of it outside of Peru and it's the oldest one found so far.

What are they? They're a completely extinct kind of dolphin -- one that's trying really hard to look like a walrus. They looked something like a dolphin from the neck down, but with an Admiral Ackbar-type face for a business end. It's basically a dolphin trying very hard to be a walrus. (Algal blooms -- it's a trap!). Walrus whales were a bit different from walruses in that they had asymmetrical tusks.

Here's something fun: go over to http://3d.si.edu and take a tour of the type specimen of this species! My co-authors and long-time collaborators, the laser cowboys, helped scan in this 3D model, as part of their Smithsonian X 3D initiative.


biernas346 karma

How often do you get sent to islands inhabited by large dinosaurs?

Also do things tend to fall apart leaving you in a desperate fight for your very survival?

NickPyenson424 karma

Well, as I'm sure you know, you shouldn't ever go to that kinda place without a paleontologist. Let me know next time you board a flight to Isla Nublar.

Chesty_LaRoo266 karma

What is your opinion of Dr Scott the paleontologist from Dinosaur Train on PBS?

NickPyenson588 karma

Oh, we love Dr. Scott. He's a real paleontologist! He has worked extensively on describing new dinosaur species (and a long-time collaborator with other Smithsonian scientists). He's now chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and he's also host of Dinosaur Train! (My 4 yr old loves the show). Dinosaur Train rocks: they absolutely nail the science, and use a lot of hot stories in paleontology. I just wish they would take a Time Tunnel to the Miocene! We need more seacowbell. Gotta have more seacowbell.

Iamleg-end223 karma

Did you have a whale of a time?


I'll leave now

NickPyenson354 karma

It was kinda a fluke.

sharks_w_lasers142 karma

Did the thoughts of all those dead whales make you feel blue?

NickPyenson345 karma

Dead whales don't say much. But they do have tails to tell.

MadLintElf117 karma

For a 3 day old account I'm saying you fit in well here, very well!

Nicely done.

NickPyenson192 karma

Thanks. We try hard. Shout out to the laser cowboys pew pew /u/Smithsonianx3D

NickPyenson83 karma

Sharks w lasers? Now that's something I'd like to find as a fossil. Helicoprion ain't too bad though.

ryanlintelman214 karma

Does your work have relevance to modern questions about biodiversity in our oceans and the effects of human activity? I'm not a scientist but I know that algal blooms and toxic water areas are two issues which can result from runoff of agricultural nutrients. Could we be creating some similar issues today?

NickPyenson317 karma

I'd argue that we need to know about the deep past so that we can have some handle on what our own future will look like. We are currently experiencing geologic-scale changes in human lifetimes. Many Earth scientists (and I'm one of them!) have gone so far to call this new era of human agency in earth systems change as the "Anthropocene." We don't know how this will turn out, but scientists can generate predictions from models and from past events. We know how biodiversity has responded in the past to, for example, global CO2 >400 ppm. We're heading that way, but we need to look to the geologic past to know more about how biodiversity might respond.

And yes, harmful algal blooms are both naturally occurring and exacerbated by human activity -- indirectly and directly.

schnannigans158 karma

How did you come to work with the Smithsonian? And can you tell me more about the aquatic sloths?

MadLintElf122 karma

Just heard about aquatic sloths the other day and they look terrifying indeed. Would love to hear more about them!

NickPyenson263 karma

I'm sure that you've seen the baby sloth videos. http://vimeo.com/11712103 (Who can resist?). Well, ancient aquatic sloths were a lot like today's, except that their snouts were a bit longer, and their arm bone were dense — the scientists who described them pointed to these features as reflecting adaptation to life in the water. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4524727

Also, they were found only in marine sediments, which is consistent with this overall idea. Paleontologists have described a bunch of species from Peru, and they've also found them in Chile before. They look something like this.

http://laelaps.files.wordpress.com/2007/07/newsloths.jpg?w=550 and http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/16/Thalassocnus.jpg and http://www.cryptomundo.com/wp-content/uploads/watersloth3lowres.jpg

IAmAZombiePenguin154 karma

How does one become a paleontologist? Like, are there certain courses you have to take that will lead you into that direction? And apart from solving the mystery of the whale graveyard, what was the next most exciting thing you've discovered?

NickPyenson250 karma

Well, there's a lot of ways to become a paleontologist. If you want to do it professionally -- at a museum, at a university -- then yeah, you do need to get a college degree, minimally, if not more training. (I did grad school and a postdoc over the course of 8 years). But there also amateur paleontologists, and so anyone can do it! That's the great thing about paleontology is that any day, someone might make a discovery that could change the textbooks. In that way, paleo is a lot like astronomy.

adamwhoop106 karma

Why aren't there Pokemon?

NickPyenson174 karma

This is what's great about the fossil record: weirder than we can possibly imagine.

cometwomet86 karma

Are you sad about the fact that NMNH is going to be renovating the Dinosaur Hall/closing the exhibit for five years?? I work next door at NMAH and let me tell you, I am super sad about it.

NickPyenson116 karma

We are too! But it's important to know: there will still be real dinosaur bones on display in the museum -- we have a temporary exhibit slated to open when the hall closes.

Yeah, but we are sad too. We do get >8 M visitors a year, and many of those are schoolbus-loads of students! But it's going to be worth the wait. We're so excited about how amazing it will be once it reopens

Speaking of which...any one have a good name in mind for our future Dinosaur Hall? We're on the lookout for a good 2-3 words to describe fossils, dinosaurs, paleontology...Thoughts? Let us hear from you!

Pinedaspenis71 karma

What is the involvement of chilean universities during research at Cerro Ballena? As a chilean I must say that you should check Cucao Beach in Chiloe, everybody that lives there has their homes crawling with megalodon teeth and whale bones

NickPyenson73 karma

This is a great question: this whole story about Cerro Ballena would have never happened if it wasn't for our Chilean collaborators and support from their host institutions -- this was a unique partnership with Chilean museums and universities, including many students (check out our authorship list on the paper!). Here's the FB page for one of our partners! https://www.facebook.com/MNHNcl Follow them! They're great!

ee3k70 karma

mini seals

how small were they? given the relatively recent age of most aquatic mammal extinctions is there hope of ever reintroducing any of these animals a la the mammoth project?

NickPyenson67 karma

The fossils from Cerro Ballena are too old and have undergone too much mineral replacement to preserve DNA -- as much as I'd like to reintroduce walrus whales to the Pacific Ocean.

The mini seals? Well, that's another cool aspect to Cerro Ballena -- it's an entirely new species to science, and we haven't even finishing our detailed study on it. That's OK, science takes some time. (We took almost 4 years to finish this paper!). Watch this space. Er, go to http://cerroballena.si.edu to see more!

Buckyster54 karma

What's your favorite Smithsonian?

It's great to have someone from my area doing an AMA! Thanks a lot!

NickPyenson123 karma

Well, I work at the natural history museum, so I'm a little bit biased. But I am a huge fan of the Air & Space Udvar-Hazy Center, next to the Dulles Airport in Virginia. It's a bit off the mall, but it is totally worth the drive! There you can see one of the most amazing collection of aircraft and spaceships too -- the Discovery space shuttle is in there, along with a Concorde, the last SR-71 Blackbird, the list goes on...

delicious_toast41 karma

What do you spread on delicious delicious toast?

NickPyenson85 karma

Dulce de leche. Soo good. Sooo Gondwanan.

greenBaozi40 karma

Did Jurassic Park have a major influence on you?

NickPyenson142 karma

Oh absolutely. I was 13 at the time. It was a wild movie! But I was definitely into dinosaurs and fossils before that. Actually, my most profound influence was watching LeVar Burton on Reading Rainbow talking about dinosaurs -- that was a transcendent moment: http://vimeo.com/6138332

Shadowkat9132 karma

What made you want to become a Paleontologist?

NickPyenson146 karma

I love doing paleontology because, when you're lucky, you get to hold the direct evidence for life in the deep, deep past in your hands. It's a way to transcend the world we live in, and reach back to past worlds that are literally beyond our imagination. But they were real, and they happened. By using the tools of science, we can actually say something concretely about life on this planet millions of years ago.

BigGingerBeard29 karma

Have you ever dismissed anyone with the "Whale Biologist" remark?


NickPyenson104 karma

I'm a paleontologist, foremostly, but I work a lot on the anatomy of living marine mammals too. Dunno -- I get a lot of "oh, like Ross on Friends?"

To the credit of the producers and writers of Friends, they nail their paleo references. They quote primary literature in the show! For real. I'm sure someone on reddit can dig and find quotes...

UseYourIllusionII27 karma

What is the most beautiful place you've gotten to visit while on an excavation/study?

In a related note, what is the most beautiful sight you've seen while on you're studies/excavations (either a specific location/landmark/natural wonder or something that created wonder, like revealing the first big bone of an ancient sea creature or finding a fully intact animal, etc.)

Third and final question, what is the most exciting for you personally that you have worked on?

NickPyenson47 karma

The great thing about being a paleontologist is that I've had the privilege of working in some amazing places: the Atacama Desert, the West Coast of Vancouver Island, the island of Hokkaido in Japan, and the South Island of New Zealand, all looking for fossil whales. I haven't been to Antarctica yet, like some of my colleagues, so that's on my bucket list. But we do have whale fossils from there: Seymour Island, specifically. You can see that particular fossil in person on the National Mall at our natural history museum in the Sant Ocean Hall! (It's Llanocetus).

NickPyenson65 karma

When you do international travel, it can be really jarring to wake up in a foreign place. Probably one of the most surreal trips was my first time to the Ica Desert in southern Peru. We flew overnight from the US to Lima, and then spent the rest of the next day driving from Lima, and only reached the desert at nightfall. We drove in the night until we reached our fieldcamp, and then I woke up the next morning to the sight of bizarre mesas and desert scenery that was straight out a Calvin & Hobbes Spaceman Spiff story. I'm sure there are people who would say the same about the American West too.

Benmand1323 karma

How often do you wash your hands while digging through dirt? I feel like I'd need to like every ten minutes.

NickPyenson77 karma

Wash hands? That field grit just adds flavor. Srsly, just because you do fieldwork doesn't mean you have to eat poorly. http://nmnh.typepad.com/.a/6a01156e4c2c3d970c015393126034970b-pi

See more in my lab blog archives: http://nmnh.typepad.com/pyenson_lab/fieldwork/

AtlasShruggedAgain21 karma


NickPyenson28 karma

We know that there are skeletons going into the roadcut cliffs on either side of the highway, right next to the former spot where our team's excavation was 2010-2012: http://cerroballena.si.edu/cbmap

Based on our estimates using geologic map area, extrapolating from the densities we measured, we calculate that there are hundreds of skeletons yet to be found. That's what makes Cerro Ballena so much like Dinosaur National Monument -- it is ripe for an institution to step in, excavate a small quarry, and build small structure around it, and create a place where people can see the skeletons for themselves!