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

The Walking WhalesBeyond the obvious scholarship that goes into any UC Press book—research, writing, and editing—are challenges even sophisticated readers and reviewers often remain happily unaware of. In this multi-part Behind the Scenes series, we throw light on the hurdles UC Press authors face in bringing their work to the public. From field work logistics in foreign countries, to the regulatory snags of evolving public policy, to the unique concerns scholars of human subjects face, learn about the lengths to which authors go to present their scholarship to the public.

Cobras. Kidnappers. Creationists. Certifiably crazy people barring the door to huge fossil caches. Jackals driven mad by the same heat a dig team will be working in—unprotected.

G. M. “Hans” Thewissen’s work with fossilized remains of ancestral whales has exposed him to all of the above. He’s also had research trips aborted because of war, faced widely differing social mores, and waited years to study tantalizing fossil specimens because he lacked $1,000 to ship them to his lab.

“Hans” Thewissen
“Hans” Thewissen, author

The Walking Whales has been called “absolutely cutting-edge” by a Smithsonian curator of Marine Mammals, and Thewissen’s erudition and scholarship are obvious even to non-paleontologists. But the nitty-gritty adventures (literally) of fossil finding are almost as compelling—as are the situations grad school just doesn’t prepare you for. (Even if you’ve known fossils were your future since your twelfth birthday; on his digs Thewissen still uses the rock hammer he got then).

In 1991, for instance, the brand new PhD landed in Pakistan thrilled to begin his very first field project with a grant from the National Geographic Society. But scarcely five days in, Operation Desert Storm started and foreign nationals were recalled. Dream dashed, Thewissen returned to the US, very “aware that failing to deliver on a first grant can sink a career.”

After much travail, one of his finds turned out to be significant. His team’s short paper on the Pakicetus ear bone—different from both the incus (anvil) of a cetacean and a land mammal—was published in Nature.

Thewissen is well aware it could have gone another way. “My work being affected by global politics is not something I’d foreseen as a student, and I was certainly not trained to deal with that.”

Finding Fossils is Expensive

Nor was he trained in the economics of digs. Finding fossils is expensive. Post-docs are scared of not getting funding, and of not delivering if they do get funding. Though little discussed, the gap on a CV, and then demoralization over tenure can lead people to leave the field. Even though Thewissen himself is often “short a few thousand dollars,” researchers must “learn to live within their means” as people must in personal life.

“If I fly to India with $5,000 in my pocket for a team of three to live on and work with for a month, everything has to be paid from that, even if there are surprising expenses!” Thewissen says. “There are tense sessions to see how much has been spent. Some credit cards actually work there now, but that’s not how it was 15 years ago out in the desert.”

Both to save money and simply to get bones out of the ground and back home safely, Thewissen must stay nimble. He is used to MacGyver-ing stop-gaps in constant battles against remote and rough terrain, weather, and transportation logistics. He’s “frankly, quite proud” when he surmounts the engineering challenges that arise constantly. He’s also cheerfully adopted a colleague’s advice—“enjoy the entire experience, even if you lose a whole day from a logistics snafu … just go with the flow.”

And he maintains a capacity for self-examination that goes far beyond logistics: “There might be great personal growth that doesn’t help our understanding of whale evolution at all. If you’re not open to that kind of stuff, it’s going to be a very frustrating experience.”

Figure 66

The Dangers of the Field

“… working in a place like India is like riding a tiger: you can try to steer the tiger, but the tiger decides where you go.”

Luckily, Thewissen’s frustrations make lively reading. For instance, after getting a go-ahead (“There is an unwritten rule, observed by many paleontologists but also frequently broken, that one does not visit localities where someone else is working without their permission”), and then waiting 2 years to return to a certain site in Pakistan, he journeyed toward it in staggering heat and privation only to be turned back by police troops with semi-automatics in camouflaged jeeps.

“The next day, an Islamabad newspaper reports that four policeman have been killed in the operation and that the kidnappers were not caught. A colleague tells me to go home and forget about it. … The parts of Ambulocetus [the transitional specimen Thewissen discovered that is the walking whale of his book title] that are still under the ground remain where they have been for forty-eight million years.”

This type of thing seems to be all in a day’s work for a paleobiologist like Thewissen. Though this particular event signals the switch from Pakistan to India for his work, he approaches the new terrain with an open mind. “A place like India is sort of like riding a tiger; you can try to steer the tiger, but the tiger actually decides where you’re going to go. However, it’s always an interesting ride”

He realizes his own assumptions shouldn’t travel—even to the country just next door. For instance, while lost in the desert in India, Thewissen was shocked when his Hindu colleague matter-of-factly asked directions from a Muslim woman. His Pakistani-honed sensibilities (97% Muslim; India is 70% Hindu) had to be re-calibrated to a new normal, as one would not ask an unrelated female there for directions, and he “continuously works hard to be up on local mores and not offend people around him.” Giving candy to some village boys in a spare moment, for instance, he struggles and fails to also give some to the girls of the village, who are shy and cannot simply be waved over.

Creationists vs. Scientists

Not all dangers arise far from home. Thewissen had a self-described “embarrassing personal experience with creationists.”

Often, journalists or filmmakers want to see my lab and do a story. I always say yes. A year or two ago, a film crew came to my lab, and asked me to lay out the bones of Ambulocetus. They did some filming, but asked odd questions … and the same questions over and over. I thought, Is this guy dense? So I modified what I was saying, simplifying it well beyond what I usually do, until it sounded pretty simpleminded. It seemed he wasn’t really getting the story, he was really focusing in on some details that seemed rather off. A year later, two creationist videos were on YouTube with my degraded explanations that now sound silly but were given in exasperation with his questions!

I’m smarter now; I’ve learned something. we made our own video that explains the science appropriately.

Thewissen knows many scientists won’t dignify creationists by engaging in direct debate about the fossil record. “But if the battle for science is lost it’ll be because scientists are not taking the challenges and educate the public. As a researcher, I feel a responsibility to explain that research to anybody who asks: kindergartners, high-schoolers, the Rotary club.” Thewissen suggests that if the public is to be “science literate and make the right decisions about global climate change or coal mining development or fracking, we need to get them used to thinking about these things with topics that are friendlier. Paleontology can be an ambassador for science.”

The Hoarder’s Stash

Some tales have several surprise twists. The German widow of an Indian geologist lived in Dehradun, a community in the foothills of the Himalayas, guarding a legendary fossil stash. (“This is the largest collection of Eocene artiodactyls from India, and it is our best bet at finding the closest relative to whales.”) A tangle of cross-continental intrigue, professional paranoias and jealousies, mental illness, and a large dollop of xenophobia comprises the tangle Thewissen returned to repeatedly. “Because I’m Dutch, and I speak German, I thought I’d butter her up, but that didn’t work at all. Every year that I’d visit, I’d ask if I could see the fossils. Every year she said no.”

Eventually his patience and persistence paid off. She finally granted permission, albeit with demands that he not show the fossils to any Indians, which Thewissen eventually ignored. Then just as he readied himself to begin organizing and cataloging, she died. Three months later, Thewissen was informed he’d been put in charge of the Dehradun estate. But like a fairy tale curse, the widow had left Thewissen with a treasure that includes the earliest ancestors of whales, but not the means to access it.

Though hard pressed to describe the chaos of the widow’s compound, he finally likens the disarray to an episode of Hoarders. “She gave us the estate and the fossils, but not the means to work with them … I don’t even know how to describe the disorganization, but I don’t have the money to do right by them: to get them out of the rocks, to get them cleaned and curated and numbered and in boxes and photographed and published.”

As he began exploring the crawl space where myriad burlap sacks with fossil-filled rocks had languished for years, Thewissen says the compound’s Nepalese servant ran up shouting “Cobra! Cobra!” pushed him out and began extricating sacks himself. “I’m wearing leather shoes, but he has flip-flops! If he gets bitten …” Appreciated the worries about his safety, Thewissen could only hope he “knew cobra behavior better than I.”

Thewissen is still discerning how to tackle what might yield the discoveries of a lifetime.

Post-docs, NB: Twists and turns such as these are all in a day’s work. Paleobiology is not for the faint of heart.

G. M. “Hans” Thewissen is Ingalls-Brown Endowed Professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at Northeast Ohio Medical University. His main research interest is the study of whales, particularly their adaptations to life in water and their origin as land mammals. He discovered in 1994 the skeleton of the first-known whale that could walk on land (Ambulocetus), and he has led more than ten field expeditions each to Pakistan and India, collecting fossil whales. He is coeditor of Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals (2002), Emergence of Whales (1998), and Sensory Evolution on the Threshold (UC Press, 2008). His work also appears in a Nature-produced video on whale evolution.

Speculative Illustration

Jacqueline Dillard
Jacqueline Dillard, illustrator

Jacqueline Dillard is an Ohio native and studies entomology in Kentucky. She was an undergraduate at Kent State (my medical school is affiliated with Kent State) and I knew her mother; Jacqueline has made scientific drawings for me before, and I thought it would be really cool to have a bunch of drawings by the same person, in the same style. Because she often visits her mom in Ohio, I could meet with her face to face and she could touch the fossils.

The five or six reconstructions of whales are all originals. We do not like to reconstruct parts that we do not know, so in the drawings we try to hide those parts. In one case, we left out the hands and feet since we never found those bones. Reconstruction is always a judgment call. For instance, we never know what type of fur a fossil animal had; maybe it was white, but in the drawing it’s brown. That’s an assumption we make, without even being explicit that we make it. On the other hand, if I start leaving that stuff out, non-professional paleontologists lose so much context that they cannot imagine the animal, they won’t get it.

But different professionals will be more or less comfortable showing more or less of the animal and in making up things. I think you have to be honest about what you have and don’t have. If you just have a skull, you shouldn’t re-construct the whole animal. But I think it’s OK if you want to convey the excitement of this animal, the life of this animal, to reconstruct some parts you don’t have. You look at animals that are closely related to it, and you do the best you can. But, yes, some parts like fur color are really a guess.

Jacqueline Dillard’s work is featured in the Wild Things show from March 20 through May 2, 2015.

 

Additional Q&A

Who handles logistics?

When I work in Pakistan or India, my colleagues there take care of all the permitting, and carry papers around to show authorities where we’re allowed to be and what we’re doing.

What happens to the fossils after you’ve studied them?

The fossils aren’t mine. They’re on loan (sometimes for years), but I return them to the countries they’re from. If they’re from India, they go back to the university that my main colleague works at. In Pakistan they go back to Geological Survey of Pakistan or, previously, to the National History Museum in Islamabad.

Do you find field-work colleagues/collaborators via universities, published work, friends?

All of the above. I start to work with people in the field only after I’ve met them and I’m pretty sure they’re going to be people I trust and understand. I have to respect them and they me. It’s very different from being a colleague where you just have a half hour lunch. It’s not a couple of emails back and forth and then you’re off. You’re going to be spending days and nights in a foreign country with them, living very cheap, seeing them day and night, for every meal. You share your bedroom with them!