Monday, August 26, 2019

Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures, by Nick Pyenson (author, narrator)

Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, ISBN 9780525630852, June 2018

Nick Pyenson studies whales--all cetaceans, in fact. Whales include the largest animals that have ever lived on Earth. We've interacted with them for much of our history.

But because they spend most of their lives underwater, and mostly don't have any regular need to be close to shore, we know surprisingly little about them. Which whales have the most oil or blubber is important for whale hunters, but not exactly a deep scientific insight, taken by itself. It doesn't tell us anything about how whales evolved, where they are and what they're doing in the great majority of their time that isn't spent anywhere near humans, or what their likely future in a changing world may be. Nick Pyenson has spent his professional life trying to answer those questions.

This is the story of that research and what he and other scientists have learned.

Pyenson reads his own book in a lively, enthusiastic, and clear voice that's easy to listen to. His passion for his subject comes through, and he's got really interesting material to work with.

His first section is about the cetacean past--how whales arose from four-legged, somewhat dog-like land animals, by stages, from fully land-dwelling animals, to animals spending a lot of time in the water but still mostly land-dwelling, to water-dwelling animals who gave birth on land, to animals that still had vestigial legs which clearly could not have supported them on land, to the current variety of fully aquatic whales and dolphins. A significant part of this research involves a fossil bed in Chile that has the largest and most complete fossil remains of extinct species of whales, deposited in at least four separate episodes, possibly due to toxic algal blooms (i.e., "red tide.") One of the small, interesting details from this section is that whales' closest living relatives appear to be hippos.

The second section is about currently living whale species, what we know and don't know, and how we are still learning the basics of internal whale anatomy and the differences to be found in the different varieties of whales. This includes discovery of previously unsuspected structures in the jaws and chins of different varieties of filter-feeding whales. Gathering some of this data included reluctantly joining a whaling expedition, not something he was pleased to do, but a rare opportunity to examine internal anatomical details on whales that haven't already begun to decay.

The final section considers the possible future of cetacean species in a changing global environment--which species are recovering from past depredations and which aren't, which seem to be adapting to the changes we're living through now, and which seem to be struggling, or losing the battle. There are some very impressive successes.

All in all, it's both a fascinating book, and a good listen.


I bought this audiobook.

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