Talking Whales: Giants of the Deep with Exhibition Curator John Flynn

by AMNH on


The special exhibition Whales: Giants of the Deep is co-curated by John J. Flynn, Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals, Division of Paleontology, and Dean of the Richard Gilder Graduate School.

John Flynn Thumbnail
John Flynn, Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals, Division of Paleontology

Flynn is an authority on the evolution of mammals, including many now-extinct land mammals in South America. But his fieldwork there was actually launched by an unlikely story of an amateur’s find of whale fossils—high in the Andes Mountains of Chile. We recently spoke with Dr. Flynn about the exhibition’s many highlights, his fieldwork in South America, and his sightings of whales in the wild.

What are some highlights of Whales, the new exhibition? 

The show covers three key themes: whale evolution, whale biology and diversity, and human interaction with whales—from being a resource to the spiritual connections. Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum of New Zealand, where this exhibition originated, has such rich whale collections, and we have added exhibits including our own Museum’s specimens and artifacts and our scientists’ research.

Sperm whale skeletons
Two sperm whale skeletons grace the exhibition Whales: Giants of the Deep
© AMNH/D. Finnin

I was particularly awed by the two sperm whale skeletons, their size and elegance, seeing exactly how the spermaceti organ and fleshy “nose” would fit above the bony skull, knowing that they provide a beautiful illustration of sexual dimorphism in species—where males are larger than females, as in sperm whales, or vice versa—and understanding the reverence in which sperm whales are held by the Maori people.

Blue whale heart
Blue-whale heart model, as seen in Whales: Giants of the Deep
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Also, I love the full-size model of the blue-whale heart, which you can crawl into. It’s awesome, a perfect thing for kids. And if I, as a fairly big guy, can climb inside, most adults can, too!

You mostly study fossil land mammals, but you’ve also uncovered whales?

Twenty-five years ago, a veterinarian from Chile, who ran a family estancia, or ranch, there, was coming through New York on his way to Europe. His uncle, mayor of a small town and a naturalist, had found what he thought were whale bones 6,000 feet up in the Andes.

The vet didn’t call anyone at the Museum before showing up at the security desk with photographs of the bones, but asked if anyone was interested. Security called our scientists and they asked him to come up to the Paleontology offices where it was immediately clear that they were definitely fossil whale bones, and of great scientific interest! 

Andes Mountains
Museum curators found fossil whale bones 6,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains of southern Chile.
© Kevin Buehler

But obviously whales don’t live in the mountains. So we—Mike Novacek, Mark Norell, Andy Wyss, and I—got a grant to run an expedition there, and we eventually found more fossil vertebrae of this animal—enough to determine that the whale was a mysticete, a baleen whale.

Near the whale bones, we also found other marine fossils—shells, sharks’ teeth and so on. By determining the geological age of those and dating the volcanic rocks above and below them, we found that the site was at least 18 to 20 million years old! That helped us advance the understanding of how old the Andes Mountains were in Patagonia, and how fast they rose from the sea to carry their entombed fossil whale passengers to such great heights.

You’ve been doing fieldwork in remote spots in South America and elsewhere for decades. What modern cetaceans have you seen?

Well, once we were camped in a horribly hot, remote spot along the Gulf of California, in Baja, Mexico and a school of dolphins swam right up to where we were, as if they were curious to see what was going on, then swam back out of the bay.

Amazon river dolphin
Amazon river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis), with fish
Wikimedia/Dennis Otten

Also, we work in a riverside quarry along the Amazon, in Peru, and we’ll often see river dolphins feeding there. It seems to be a good fishing ground for them, because they are there pretty consistently, sometimes cooperatively hunting. But those dolphins, even though they are up to 8 feet long, aren’t the biggest animals in the Amazon—there are even bigger fish! 

Watch the video for more about Dr. Flynn's research.

te papa logo

Whales: Giants of the Deep was developed and presented by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. This exhibition was made possible through the support of the New Zealand Government.

The American Museum of Natural History gratefully acknowledges the Richard and Karen LeFrak Exhibition and Education Fund. 

Generous support for Whales: Giants of the Deep has been provided by the Eileen P. Bernard Exhibition Fund.