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Publisher's Summary

 “A palaeontological howdunnit...[Spying on Whales] captures the excitement of...seeking answers to deep questions in cetacean science.” (Nature)

Called “the best of science writing” (Edward O. Wilson) and named a best book by Popular Science, a dive into the secret lives of whales, from their four-legged past to their perilous present. Whales are among the largest, most intelligent, deepest diving species to have ever lived on our planet. They evolved from land-roaming, dog-size creatures into animals that move like fish, breathe like us, can grow to 300,000 pounds, live 200 years, and travel entire ocean basins. 

Whales fill us with terror, awe, and affection - yet there is still so much we don't know about them. Why did it take whales over 50 million years to evolve to such big sizes, and how do they eat enough to stay that big? How did their ancestors return from land to the sea - and what can their lives tell us about evolution as a whole? Importantly, in the sweepstakes of human-driven habitat and climate change, will whales survive?

Nick Pyenson's research has given us the answers to some of our biggest questions about whales. He takes us deep inside the Smithsonian's unparalleled fossil collections, to frigid Antarctic waters, and to the arid desert in Chile, where scientists race against time to document the largest fossil whale site ever found. Full of rich storytelling and scientific discovery, Spying on Whales spans the ancient past to an uncertain future - all to better understand the most enigmatic creatures on Earth.  

©2018 Nick Pyenson (P)2018 Penguin Audio

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wow. love this book! informative, engaging,

love this book! informative, engaging, inspiring, relevant to our current world, i.hope to read more from this author! I will see the whale exhibition at the Smithsonian with new eyes!

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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The title of this book should be Catfish

I heard this guy on NPR and got the book because I thought it would actually dive into the mysterious and differing habits of whales and dolphins... he hardly talks about their communication, family structures, and historical relationship to humans (beyond whaling). This book was more about him and "the science" and beaurocracy of bone hunting. I'm glad he contextualized his passion and the work that goes into it but come on... there was never enough detailed about what whales do, why they behave the way they do, how they interact with us and other animals, and what we can learn from them.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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A Whale of a Story About Whales

Whales are huge and they are cool!

But what else to we really know about them. Dr. Pyenson's book tells us that whales have been studied extensively and a lot is known about them. But, for every fact uncovered there seems to be 10 or more questions that arise that require further research.

Dr. Pyenson obviously is fascinated with whales and has the skill to explain them to just about anyone. This book has been written to be understood by laymen. If you like whales, you should read/listen to this book as you will probably find it just as fascinating as I did.

A couple of parts that I found particularly interesting are:

The research that took place to determine whether a baleen whale controls the flow of water into its throat when feeding or is the throat expanded due to shear volume without any control of the water by the whale. Doesn't sound to significant until you realize that the amount of water taken in during each jaw opening is the equivalent volume of a nominal living room in a house and that from opening to closing of the jaw takes place in less than 15 seconds. Amazing! Btw, the research calculated that the whale must control the flow as the forces are so significant that if they didn't control it the back of their throat would blow out.

The second item was about a whale graveyard found in South America. Just before reading "Spying on Whales", I had finished "This Is Your Brain on Parasites", which identifies just how much impact micro-organisms can have in our world in the past, presently and in the future. Regarding the whale graveyard, this impact was in the past.

The whale graveyard is unique in that there are several layers of whale fossils/bones in this graveyard. Each event that caused the whales to die (referred to as a whale fall) are thousands of years apart. The quality and quantity of the whale remains indicates that the cause of death was quite rapid. The theory is that the weather pattern had changed and caused substantial rain in the mountains which caused a micro-organism that inhabited the mountains to be washed out to the ocean shore. Much like a red tide is today, the micro-organism quantity proved to be substantial enough to cause the water that the whales were swimming in to become toxic. It is amazing that one of the smallest living organisms can kill one of the largest living creatures on the planet.

There are plenty of other things to learn about whales in this book. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in whales. I listened to the audio version and recommend it to those that like listening to a very good story.

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Feeling clarity and intrigued by cetacean science

Definitely for all of us effected by our world of water and species we love.