Who are we? What do we do?
Our research group focuses on the evolution and paleobiology of marine vertebrates. In some cases, such as with marine tetrapods, these groups have undergone dramatic evolutionary transformations from terrestrial ancestries, with attendant modifications to multiple anatomical, behavioral and ecological systems. These transitions provide a series of evolutionary comparisons that form the basis for understanding how these lineages have diversified in the world's oceans, over geologic time.
Our research group and collaborators include many different stripes of paleobiologists, biomechanists, and geochemists. We are always interested in new perspectives and skill sets! Our work takes us around the world to different museums, research centers, field stations, and, most importantly, field localities. Recent paleontological fieldwork, for example, has included sites near Vancouver Island, British Columbia; the Caribbean coast of Panama; the Atacama Desert of Chile; and the Maryland coast of the Chesapeake Bay. We have received funding for this research from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Smithsonian Institution.
Nicholas D. Pyenson, Ph.D., Curator of Fossil Marine Mammals
Nick is curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of British Columbia; he received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He completed his B.S. from Emory University, and his A.A. from Oxford College of Emory University. Nick grew up in both Quebec and Louisiana, which naturally leads to long discourses about the virtues of Stanley Cup parades and crawfish boils. His research spans the systematics, macroecology, taphonomy, and functional morphology of not just marine mammals, but other marine tetrapods, too. Recently, he has been interested in how digital tools can expand fieldwork, outreach and natural history collections all at the same time. Nick is also an Affiliate Curator at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, and on the Editorial Board at PLOS ONE, PeerJ, and the Latin American Journal of Aquatic Mammals. To find out more about his research publications, see his Google Scholar Page; to see his contact information, check out his Smithsonian staff webpage. (Photo: J. A. Goldbogen)
Postdoctoral Fellows and Visiting Scientists:
Alyson Fleming, Ph.D., James Smithson Fellow
Aly is a James Smithson Postdoctoral Fellow advised by NDP and co-advised by Kris Helgen in Vertebrate Zoology. Prior to joining the lab, she was a Knauss Marine Policy Fellow and Foreign Affairs Officer at the Department of State working on international marine policy in the Office of Marine Conservation. She received her Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in biological oceanography researching cetacean population structure, foraging ecology and habitat modeling. Her James Smithson fellowship research will examine the historical ecology of Arctic cetaceans using NMNH collections of baleen, teeth, and bone, as a way to predict potential future trajectories of these species in light of a changing climate. As a Smithson Fellow, her work will directly connect Smithsonian science and policy leaders with other US government and NGO partners to better inform the development of a sustainable Arctic policy, as the US takes the chairmanship of the Arctic Council for 2015-2017. (Photo: A. Fleming).
Matthew S. Leslie, Ph.D., James Smithson Fellow (starting Fall 2016)
Originally from Oklahoma, Matt will begin his James Smithson postdoctoral fellowship in the Fall of 2016, advised by NDP and co-advised by Kris Helgen in Vertebrate Zoology. Matt received his Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 2016, focusing on the phylogenetics, evolution and systematics of delphinids, blending fieldwork with applied conservation genetics at NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. Matt has also worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he managed the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. He also worked for the Cetacean Research and Conservation Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Matt has done extensive fieldwork on whales in Madagascar, the western Hawaiian Islands, the Gulf of Mexico, the Bahamas, Australia, and most recently Cambodia. In his free time Matt enjoys being outdoors. These activities range from hurtling down rock-strewn trails at break-neck speed on a mountain bike to catching beetles and spiders with his daughter. (Photo: M. S. Leslie).
Christopher D. Marshall, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Texas A&M University at Galveston (sabbatical fellow, Fall 2016).
Chris is an expert in the functional morphology of marine vertebrates at Texas A&M University at Galveston, where he is Principal Investigator of the Ecomorphology & Comparative Physiology Laboratory. With his students, his lab integrates morphology, physiology and behavioral performance studies of vertebrates to understand organismal adaptations to the environment. They use a variety of approaches, including classic animal dissections, histocytochemistry, immunohistochemistry, electron microscopy, kinematics and motion analysis, electromyography, and other electrophysiological techniques. Recent research topics in his lab include the feeding apparatus and foraging behavior in marine vertebrates, comparative neurobiology, function and evolution of sensory systems. At the Smithsonian, he will be spending a richly deserved sabbatical looking at the evolution and ecology of pinnipeds, and other marine vertebrates, with a special focus on integrating fossil data into evolutionary hypotheses of functional change. Follow him on Twitter, too! (Photo: C. D. Marshall).
Matthew J. McCurry, NMNH Peter Buck Predoctoral Fellow & Monash University Ph.D. Student
Matt is a Ph.D. student at Monash University and Museum Victoria in Australia. He has a broad interest in the anatomy, ecology and evolution of mammals and reptiles and he has published on a range of taxa including frogs, monitor lizards, crocodilians, and toothed whales. His Ph.D. dissertation work focuses on using digital tools to examine the evolution of skull shape in aquatic tetrapods. While at the NMNH, Matt will undertake a project on the evolution of tooth striations (longitudinal ridges of enamel) in aquatic mammals and reptiles, a surprisingly convergent pattern over 200 million years of tetrapod evolution that has never been satisfactorily explained. Matt grew up beside Lake Macquarie on the east coast of Australia. He enjoys traveling, snorkeling and camping. (Photo: S. Clulow).
Youri van den Hurk, Ph.D. Student, Smithsonian Fellow (starting Spring 2017)
Youri is a Ph.D. student at the University College London's Institute of Archaeology. His dissertation research broadly looks at the zooarchaeology of cetaceans in Europe, with a special focus on resolving the history and social implications of cetacean exploitation in Medieval northwestern Europe. He has a MSc in Archaeological Science from the University of Nottingham, and previously was at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands. As a Smithsonian Fellow, he will be making extensive use of the modern cetaceans collections, focusing on building an element by element osteological guide across a wide taxonomic scope to aid zooarchaeological research. (Photo: Y. van den Hurk).
Carlos Peredo, NMNH Researcher & George Mason University Ph.D. Student
Carlos is a Ph.D. student at George Mason University with Mark Uhen. He is broadly interested in the ecological factors driving morphological changes in marine mammals, though his previous work has ranged from foraminfera to dinosaurs. Carlos completed his B.S. from Seton Hill University, and recently finished his M.S. at George Mason, where he studied the biogeography of marine mammals using beta diversity. Currently, Carlos is working on the description of an unusual early fossil mysticete from Oregon that bears on the evolutionary changes in feeding and hearing between ancient and modern baleen whales. A D.C. area native, Carlos has been fortunate enough to serve several internships at the Smithsonian and develop a broad range of paleontological knowledge. Carlos enjoys teaching martial arts, playing tennis, and traveling as often as possible. (Photo: C. Peredo).
Ana M. Valenzuela-Toro, Smithsonian Institution Graduate Fellow
Ana has been a long-time collaborator of the lab's research work, and she is currently visiting NMNH on a SI Graduate Fellowship to continue several ongoing projects on the paleobiology of pinnipeds. She completed her undergraduate studies in 2011 and then her Master's in biological sciences in 2014, both at the Universidad de Chile. During this time, she conducted extensive fieldwork throughout Chile, resulting in several scholarly publications. Her master’s thesis focused on the diversity and biogeographic patterns of phocids (true seals) during the late Neogene in the Bahía Inglesa Formation (northern Chile), which was supported by a National Geographic Society Young Explorers Grant (see this recent Qué Pasa article describing her work). Ana is broadly interested in morphology, biogeography and evolution of pinnipeds in the Southern Hemisphere, as well as the macroevolution of marine mammals. We compete with partner investigators in California to show her the best fieldsites for fossil marine mammals. Ana enjoys drinking green tea, dancing, and volunteering at rescue centers for stray animals in Chile. (Photo: A. M. Valenzuela-Toro).
Alex Boersma, NMNH Researcher (starting Fall 2016, California State University, Monterey Bay)
Alex has been collaborating with the lab since 2014, when she cut her teeth doing rapid capture 3D digitization of an enigmatic fossil sperm whale described by Remington Kellogg in 1925, renamed Albicetus oxymycterus in PLOS ONE in 2015. She is currently working on several projects involving new fossil toothed whales from the Smithsonian's collections. While finishing her final year at Vassar College, double majoring in both earth science and studio art, Alex has applied her sophisticated visual skulls at the redescription and illustration of this specimen. Earlier this summer, Alex defended her honors thesis with distinction on this latter topic, which earned her departmental honors, the excellence prize in geology, and other honors as she graduated from Vassar. Alex has conducted field and lab work with R. Ewan Fordyce at the University of Otago, in Dunedin, New Zealand, as well as having outdoor technical training in whitewater and wilderness medicine. Although Alex hails from the Leafs Nation, we hardly hold that against her. She will begin a scientific illustration program at Cal State Monterey Bay in the fall of 2016. (Photo: A. Boersma)
Collaborating Staff and Collections Management:
Carrie Carter, Keeper of the Kellogg Library Archive
Following his death in 1969 at age 76, Remington Kellogg’s personal library was donated to the Department of Paleobiology and became the foundation of the Remington Kellogg Library of Marine Mammalogy. Under the careful guidance of his widow, Marguerite Kellogg, the Kellogg Library was established with the goal of creating a “working collection of publications on all aspects of fossil and modern marine mammals.” Nearly a half a century later, that collection has grown to over 1,800 items and includes books and journals dedicated to the diverse areas of study related to the biology of marine mammals. The majority of these items are cataloged and maintained by Smithsonian Libraries, but not all of the items offered in the initial Kellogg donation belong to it. Carrie is spearheading the major task of organizing these latter items, including reprints, correspondence, photos, and fieldnotes, into the Kellogg Reprints Archive, which is an archive that has grown alongside the library collection to include thousands of publications on the topic of fossil and modern marine mammals. With Carrie's guidance, we are aiming to seize the great challenge, and opportunity, to digitize and organize this collection, eventually making its peerless holdings available in an open-access framework. Also, Carrie has a wicked sense of humor, and writes devastatingly funny travelogues. (Photo: M. Parrish, Kellogg Illustration Library)
Holly Little, Museum Specialist in Paleoinformatics
Holly originally hails from North Carolina. She graduated from Duke University in 2010. Through her Visual Studies and Medieval and Renaissance Studies majors she was first exposed to the cutting edge approaches in visualizing historical data. Wanting to explore these concepts further, she enrolled in the University of Michigan School of Information Master's program, studying preservation of information, digitization, and bits of coding, web development, and information access. She came to the Smithsonian by way of the the School of Information's Alternative Spring Break program, and has continued working in the Pyenson Lab (along with the "laser cowboys") through another internship until her recent hire as a paleoinformatics specialist in the Department of Paleobiology at the museum. She continues to play a vital role in advising us on all things digital, as well as contributing to publications and fieldwork when she can! While working in the lab, she finished her Master's degree at Michigan and expanded her palate by trying the great local seafood in the port town of Caldera, in Chile. (Photo: H. Little).
David J. Bohaska, Museum Specialist in Vertebrate Paleontology
Neil was a NMNH Peter Buck Postdoctoral Fellowship, advised by NDP and co-advised by Matt Carrano in Paleobiology. Neil received his Ph.D. in Ryosuke Motani's laboratory at the University of California, Davis, and a B.A. from Oberlin College. Neil is working on a broad-scale project looking at the macroevolution of marine tetrapods. Marine tetrapods have repeatedly adapted to marine life since the Triassic (e.g., ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, whales, seals) and these secondarily marine groups have long been used as textbook examples of macroevolutionary phenomenon such as convergent evolution and adaptive radiation. As a Buck postdoc, he is using the exceptional collections of recent and fossil marine tetrapods at NMNH to explore the tempo and mode of major anatomical transformations that enabled marine tetrapods to repeatedly invade the oceans over the past 250 million years. He is also conducting fieldwork in Mesozoic rocks of California and Nevada; see a post about recent fieldwork at the amazing site known as Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park. Neil also has not one but two tattoos that are featured in Carl Zimmer's Science Ink. (Photo: N. P. Kelley).
Maya Yamato, Ph.D. (Previously: NMNH Peter Buck Postdoctoral Fellow)
Maya finished her NMNH Peter Buck Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2015 (co-advised by Kristofer Helgen in Vertebrate Zoology and NDP in Paleobiology). Maya has a B.A. from Princeton University and finished her Ph.D. recently from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Joint Program, where she focused her research on the auditory systems of baleen whales. For her dissertation work, she became proficient at CT scanning whale heads and their ears, along with dissections in the lab or (rotting) on the beach. (She is fearless when it comes to whale guts gore). For her postdoctoral research, she is interested in expanding her species sampling to better model how sound propagates through whale heads -- because we still don't really know how baleen whales hear. When she's not dissecting the latest roadkill or beach pickup in VZ, she keeps us Paleo folk up-to-date on what's happening in the West Wing of the museum. Currently, she is completing a major study on the cranial anatomy of rorquals, based on unpublished research by August Pivorunas, with funding from the Smithsonian Women's Committee (Photo: late D. Hurlbert, NMNH Imaging).