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The Walking Whales

The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years

J. G. M. “Hans” Thewissen
with illustrations by Jacqueline Dillard
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Walking Whales
    Book Description:

    Hans Thewissen, a leading researcher in the field of whale paleontology and anatomy, gives a sweeping first-person account of the discoveries that brought to light the early fossil record of whales. As evidenced in the record, whales evolved from herbivorous forest-dwelling ancestors that resembled tiny deer to carnivorous monsters stalking lakes and rivers and to serpentlike denizens of the coast.

    Thewissen reports on his discoveries in the wilds of India and Pakistan, weaving a narrative that reveals the day-to-day adventures of fossil collection, enriching it with local flavors from South Asian culture and society. The reader senses the excitement of the digs as well as the rigors faced by scientific researchers, for whom each new insight gives rise to even more questions, and for whom at times the logistics of just staying alive may trump all science.

    In his search for an understanding of how modern whales live their lives, Thewissen also journeys to Japan and Alaska to study whales and wild dolphins. He finds answers to his questions about fossils by studying the anatomy of otters and porpoises and examining whale embryos under the microscope. In the book's final chapter, Thewissen argues for approaching whale evolution with the most powerful tools we have and for combining all the fields of science in pursuit of knowledge.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95941-5
    Subjects: Zoology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. CHAPTER 1 A Wasted Dig
    (pp. 1-8)

    Punjab, Pakistan, January1991. I am excited beyond belief! The National Geographic Society is giving me money to collect fossils in Pakistan: my very own field project, the first time ever. For years, it has been great to collect fossils in exotic places—Wyoming, Sardinia, and Colombia. But this is different. Now I can run my own program, decide where to collect, and study what is found. It’s exciting but also daunting. My friend Andres Aslan will come with me. We’re perfect complements: he loves geology and I love fossils. We’re both just out of school, freshly minted PhDs, and...

  4. CHAPTER 2 Fish, Mammal, or Dinosaur?
    (pp. 9-34)

    Exciting though it was, that single ear bone fromPakicetusdid not help us understand just what the earliest of whales looked like. For that, you need entire skeletons. And in 1992, the only ancient whale skeletons known were around forty million years old, compared toPakicetus’s forty-nine million, and they were from other continents—Africa and North America. Finally, they looked quite a bit like modern whales.

    Whales, together with dolphins and porpoises, make up the Cetacea, and cetaceans are mammals, not fish. This was known at least as early as in Aristotle’s time (384–322 b.c.). He wrote,...

  5. CHAPTER 3 A Whale with Legs
    (pp. 35-50)

    Punjab, Pakistan, December 1991. Last year’s ill-fated field trip to Pakistan has left me poor, so I can only afford to go alone to Pakistan this time. There, Mr. Arif and I set out to do fieldwork in a blue Isuzu pickup truck. That car was new in 1984, on my first trip to Pakistan. Now, after eight years of off-road duty and poor maintenance, the car is on its last legs. Every so often, Jamil, our lanky driver, pulls off to the side of the road, and fiddles under the hood.

    “Eek minute, sir, nooh problem.”

    The problem usually...

  6. CHAPTER 4 Learning to Swim
    (pp. 51-66)

    Stephen Jay Gould’s essay inNatural History¹ highlighted one phrase in the article describingAmbulocetus: the phrase “the feet are enormous.” He liked it because it cut through jargon and expressed some excitement. Indeed,Ambulocetus’s hind feet are as big as clown shoes, presumably because they become powerful oars in the water. The hands (or forefeet) are much smaller. In modern days, seals have feet bigger than their hands² because they use the former for propulsion when swimming, not the latter.³ But seals and whales are not related, and all modern whales swim with their tails, so it is surprising...

  7. CHAPTER 5 When the Mountains Grew
    (pp. 67-78)

    Plane Over Pakistan, May 23, 1994. Visits to the Indian subcontinent are best done between December and April, after it has recovered from the drenching monsoon rains in fall, but before the summer sun parches it. This year, I do not follow that recommendation. I arrive on the plains of Punjab during the mango season—the one benefit of traveling in May. I have to travel at this time because we want to go to the high Himalayas, where snow, avalanches, mudslides, and bitter cold make collecting in winter all but impossible. But the Indus Plain, where we will soon...

  8. CHAPTER 6 Passage to India
    (pp. 79-92)

    Islamabad, Pakistan, February 1992. After a month of fieldwork in Pakistan, I am boarding a plane that will take me to India’s capital, New Delhi. Flights between the countries only happen twice a week, the result of the hostile stance between them. Soldiers commonly shoot at each other across the Line of Control, near Skardu. I am excited to go to this new country, meet Ashok Sahni and his colleagues, and study their whale collections from Gujarat, the western Indian state on the Indian Ocean. The original arrangements were all made by airmail back and forth, weeks between correspondences. From...

  9. CHAPTER 7 A Trip to the Beach
    (pp. 93-98)

    Driving to the South Carolina Coast, 2002. I think of the long-extinct Indian whales as I drive with my family on a vacation trip to Kiawah Island in South Carolina. Weedy forests cover the mainland, like the “dense jungle” of the Pakistani maps, and they suddenly give way to flat marshes, swamps, and winding river channels at the shore. The bridge is long, but as we cross it, I can see the ocean across the island.

    Geologists call islands like Kiawah barrier islands. They are basically sandbars that rise above the sea and grow when they are fed with sand...

  10. CHAPTER 8 The Otter Whale
    (pp. 99-116)

    Kutch, India, January 12, 2000. The desert of Kutch is mostly uninhabited, except for a few herders, who roam the plain with their flocks. However, there is that one place that is teeming with humans who are not pastoralists: the lignite mine at Panandhro. It is a giant open-pit mine, one of the largest in India. Enormous machines make you feel the way an ant must feel standing next to a blender—awed by the size, but puzzled by the function. Hundreds of people work there, and the mining company built a town for them and their families, as the...

  11. CHAPTER 9 The Ocean Is a Desert
    (pp. 117-126)

    In the Del Rio, a Bar in Ann Arbor, Michigan, fall of 1992. My friend Lois Roe and I are graduate students talking shop at a bar. She went to Pakistan to collect fossil fish from the time that the Himalayas were rising, around fifteen to five million years ago, but they did not find many fossils. Now she is exploring questions that are less dependent on having many fossils, to get the most out of the samples she does have. She now works with a professor who knows very little about fish but a lot about the chemistry of...

  12. CHAPTER 10 The Skeleton Puzzle
    (pp. 127-136)

    Locality 62, Punjab, Pakistan, 1999. Six of us are back at locality 62, the place where Robert West found the firstPakicetus, digging for more fossils of those elusive first whales. The vertical wall of hard reddish-purplish rock rises five feet out of the ground and the monsoons have washed it for us, exposing delicate, beautifully preserved fossils. The braincase that I saw some years ago is still there. The wall was originally not vertical, it was horizontal. The movements that formed the Himalayas pushed it up and superimposed a pattern of crisscrossing cracks, which make the wall look like...

  13. CHAPTER 11 The River Whales
    (pp. 137-156)

    The new pakicetid skulls can really help with learning about hearing. It was clear already that cetacean hearing changed when the ancestors of cetaceans went underwater. Land ears work poorly underwater, because sound in air differs from sound underwater. The fossils showed it too: that first pakicetid incus did not resemble modern whales or modern land mammals (figure 3); that thick involucrum must have done something to sound transmission (figure 2); and the mandibular foramen grew bigger over the course of the Eocene (figure 25).

    In general, all the anatomical parts of the organ of hearing in whales can be...

  14. CHAPTER 12 Whales Conquer the World
    (pp. 157-172)

    Tokyo, Japan, February, 2000. I think about the relatives of whales as I travel on a metro train to visit the laboratory of Professor Norihiro Okada. He goes by the nickname Nori, which is also the Japanese word for a much-eaten kind of seaweed, as he points out with a broad grin. Nori is not a paleontologist but a molecular biologist. The molecular similarities between whales and hippos are piling up as more genes are studied, and Nori is a central person investigating this. In his lab, dozens of busy young people produce reams of DNA data. The DNA molecule...

  15. CHAPTER 13 From Embryos to Evolution
    (pp. 173-190)

    Tokyo, Japan, June 7, 2008. No living cetacean has legs that stick out of its body. Except for one, and I am in Japan to see it: a dolphin with hind limbs. I have seen pictures of the animal on the Internet, showing two triangular fins emerging from the body near the slit where the genitals lie hidden. The animal made headlines around the world, and my Japanese colleagues offered to take me to see it.

    The dolphin’s capture is controversial. Tadasu Yamada, who studies whales at Japan’s National Museum of Nature, tells me that the dolphin was caught by...

  16. CHAPTER 14 Before Whales
    (pp. 191-206)

    Driving on the Gangetic Plain in India March 12, 2005. It is a long and pleasant drive to Dehradun, a straight road initially, then suddenly the Himalayas appear at the horizon. An hour later, the road, a lane-and-a-half wide, reaches them, and snakes across their front range. Today, we are traveling in the middle of an artillery convoy, trying to pass the trucks one by one. The passing is useless. In front of each truck–cannon pair is another truck–cannon pair. It seems as if all the guns the Indian army has are being moved to Dehradun. We reach...

  17. CHAPTER 15 The Way Forward
    (pp. 207-212)

    I love to talk about whale evolution, and my audiences range from fifth graders, to our local Rotary club, to cetologists at international meetings. To point out how dramatic the evolution of whales is, I usually start by asking people to think about two fancy vehicles. I could use a bullet train and a nuclear submarine, but, because it is less intimidating, I ask them to think about the Batmobile and the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Whales started out with a very elaborately perfected body adapted to life on land. They changed it, in about eight million years, to a body...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 213-232)
  19. Index
    (pp. 233-246)