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Mark D. Uhen shares whale evolution research on PBS

June 17, 2019   /   by John Hollis

Mark Uhen, assistant professor, Atmospheric, Oceanic and Earth Sciences, with the Zygorhiza kochii fossil in Exploratory Hall. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

George Mason University’s Mark D. Uhen says whales tell you plenty about how evolution shaped the world, and he will get the chance to recount that story in an upcoming PBS documentary.

Now graceful giants bound to the sea, whales lived on land and stood on four legs millions of years ago before evolving into semi-aquatic and now entirely aquatic mammals. Their story can tell us a lot about how vastly different the world looked millions of years ago, Uhen said.

Uhen, an associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Earth Sciences within Mason’s College of Science, will be featured on “When Whales Walked: Journeys in Deep Time” on Wednesday, June 19, when he discusses their evolution. The two-hour program features top paleontologists from around the globe examining the fossil records that chronicle the evolution of some of the world’s most iconic creatures in whales, elephants, birds and crocodiles.

“It’s important to know evolution in general because it’s what shaped our world,” Uhen said. “Whales are really a great example of evolution. They went from the land to the sea, and everybody loves whales.”

The fossil record shows that whales experienced one of the most dramatic evolutionary transformations of any mammal, morphing from small, four-legged plant eaters to sea-faring giants in about 20 million years.

“We knew that whales had evolved from land-dwelling animals,” Uhen said, “but we didn’t know the steps. We now know a lot more about that transformation than we did when I first started [studying whales in early 1990s].”

Uhen’s passion for his research on whale evolution continues to reap dividends for Mason. He played a key role a few years back in helping Mason acquire the whale skeleton cast from the Smithsonian Institution that hangs from the ceiling in Exploratory Hall on the Fairfax Campus.

Production on “When Whales Walked” began roughly a year ago with scientists from all over the world, Uhen said, and its release coincides with the long-awaited re-opening of the fossil hall at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, the David H. Koch Hall of Fossils—Deep Time.