Hans Thewissen

Johannes Gerardus Marie "Hans" Thewissen is a Dutch-American paleontologist and anatomist.

Hans Thewissen
Hans Thewissen 8-6-14 with Microscope.jpg
Johannes Gerardus Marie Thewissen

November 28, 1959
NationalityAmerican and Dutch
Alma materUniversity of Utrecht (MSc),
University of Michigan (PhD)
Known forAmbulocetus
Arctic whales
Scientific career
FieldsPaleontology, evolutionary biology, anatomy, embryology, Sensory ecology
InstitutionsNortheast Ohio Medical University,
Kent State University
Cleveland Museum of Natural History
ThesisEvolution of Paleocene and Eocene Phenacodontidae (Mammalia, Condylarthra) (1989)
Doctoral advisorPhilip D. Gingerich

Thewissen and co-workers discovered bones of four transitional fossils that show steps in the transition from land to water in whales: Ambulocetus, Pakicetus, Indohyus and Kutchicetus. He also studies modern bowhead and beluga whales in Alaska to learn about their biology and their implications for management and conservation.

His laboratory investigates morphological adaptations in whale evolution with an interdisciplinary approach involving paleontology, anatomy, embryology, cell biology and imaging.

He has published more than 100 scientific papers.

Early lifeEdit

Thewissen has always been interested in paleontology and natural history. His mother said that when Thewissen was a small boy, she had to sort through his pockets before laundry time, to take out the rocks and worms he collected. His father used to take him to the town of Maastricht, and they collected fossils from the Maastrichtian period. 12th birthday present was a rock hammer, which has accompanied him on all collecting trips since. He grew up just 2 miles from Liessel, a fossil locale that yielded the first whales he ever collected.[2]

Educational backgroundEdit

After finishing Gymnasium secondary education in Deurne, he completed undergraduate degrees in biology with a minor in geology in 1981 at the University of Utrecht.

Thewissen's M.S. projects involved work in three departments of the University of Utrecht. He studied a small artiodactyl from the Eocene of Pakistan in the Geology Department, the systematic position of aardvarks in the biology department, and the functional morphology of digging in the veterinary sciences.

He then earned a M.Sc. cum laude degree in biology from the University of Utrecht in 1984. He studied for a semester at the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, before moving to the U.S. to earn a PhD in Geological Sciences at the University of Michigan, where he studied phenacodontids, a group of Paleogene ungulate mammals (condylarths) that is ubiquitous in North America (more than 6,000 fossils), but rare or absent in all other continents. The work with artiodactyls and phenacodontids brought familiarity with the terrestrial ancestors of cetaceans. At that time, paleontologists thought that cetaceans were derived from another group of condylarths, mesonychids, even though molecular biologists found evidence that cetaceans were closely related to artiodactyls.[3]

After graduating from the University of Michigan, he moved to a postdoctoral position at Duke University Medical Center which is where he became interested in studying whales. Thewissen's work on pakicetids in 2001, and that of his former Ph.D. advisor Philip Gingerich in the same year provided evidence to support a re-evaluation of all fossil evidence.[4]


Thewissen was an assistant professor at Northeast Ohio Medical University (then called Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine) from 1993 to 1999, then associate professor from 1999 to 2008.

In 2001, he was a visiting professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Since 1994 he has been a research associate at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. In 2008 he became the Ingalls-Brown Endowed Chair, Full Professor of Anatomy at Northeast Ohio Medical University.[5] In February 2019 he will be a scientist in residence at Sitka Sound Science Center, Alaska.

Selected worksEdit

Thewissen discovered or worked on four of the missing links in evolution of cetaceans. He worked on the following.

Cetacean evolutionary missing links researched by Thewissen
Indohyus (Raoellidae cca 49–48 Ma)
Pakicetus (Pakicetidae cca 49–48 Ma)
Ambulocetus (Ambulocetidae cca 49–48 Ma)

Discovery of AmbulocetusEdit

Thewissen and Hussain discovered a partial skeleton of a new cetacean Ambulocetus in 1992, working with and a team from the Geological Survey of Pakistan in the Kala Chitta Hills of Punjab, Pakistan.[6]

Thewissen and Ambulocetus natans

When this new ancestral whale appeared in the magazine Science in 1994, Steven Jay Gould dubbed it 'as the smoking gun of whale evolution'.[7][8]

Ambulocetus was recovered from Pakistan[9](33°36′N 72°12′E / 33.6°N 72.2°E / 33.6; 72.2, paleocoordinates 14°18′N 68°18′E / 14.3°N 68.3°E / 14.3; 68.3)[10][11] in 1993 by Thewissen and Muhammed Arif, and was described by Thewissen, Hussain, and Mohammad Arif in 1994.[6]

While has been known since the time of Charles Darwin that cetaceans had ancestors that lived on land, this was the first skeleton that included limb bones strong enough to walk on land.[12][13]

Ambulocetus natans

"I sat on the porch of a Pakistani guesthouse, puzzling over the sea-lion-size skeleton that we had just dug up in the Kala Chitta Hills. I opened some of the packages containing fossil remains that I had wrapped earlier that day, and as I scraped with a dental tool, I realized that this was a whale—one that could walk around on the large hind legs that we had unearthed. It was the first such whale to be seen by a human, ever."[14][15]

Discovery of KutchicetusEdit

Sunil Bajpai and Thewissen collected fossils in District Kutch, State of Gujarat, India, in the desert area close to the Pakistani border. Here, they found the skeleton of a small whale which they called Kutchicetus minimus. The holotype of Kutchicetus consists of some skull fragments, many vertebrae and ribs and the limb bones, although parts of fore- and hind feet were not found. A jaw fragment with the holotype allowed identification of a number of whale skulls and lower jaws as being from the same species.[3]

Discovery of PakicetusEdit

Ambulocetus (on top) Pakicetus Skeletons comparison

Teeth of Pakicetus were first found and recognized as cetaceans by the American paleontologist Robert West in 1980.[16] However, the Kala Chita Hills in Pakistan is a bone bed where cetaceans and other animals were buried together, so anatomical association between different parts is lost, and West was unable to determine which skeleton bones were associated with the teeth.[17]

Thewissen excavated the site further, discovering hundreds of bones of different mammal species. Whale teeth were by far the most common teeth recovered, and there were no mammals of the same sizes. This allowed the researchers to identify bones of the Pakicetus skeleton in a preliminary fashion. They later tested these identification by studying the stable isotopes of the bones, which matched the stable isotopes of the teeth and not those of the teeth of other mammals.[18]

Discovery of IndohyusEdit

The Indian geologist A. Ranga Rao collected fossils in the 1960s and 1970s in Indian Kashmir which he named Indohyus. Upon his death, his widow, Dr. Friedlinde Obergfell, gave the rocks to Thewissen to study.[19]

During the extraction of the fossils, the fossil preparator accidentally broke one of the skulls. In the cracked specimen, Thewissen recognized the ear structure of the auditory bulla which had a shape which is highly distinctive, found only in the skulls of living and extinct cetaceans, including Pakicetus. This suggested that Indohyus was related to cetaceans, and this was later confirmed by formal systematic analysis[20]

Thewissen was able to extract many skeletal bones of Indohyus, which showed that the species was similar in body shape to a modern mousedeer (also called chevrotains).[21]

Thewissen postulates that the first steps whale ancestors took toward aquatic habitats may also have involved escaping predators.[22]

Thewissen's discovery of Indohyus helped refine the connection between whales and hippos and suggested that Indohyus was closely related to hippos too.[23]

Fred Spoor, an anthropologist at University College London, said the significance of the latest find was comparable to Archaeopteryx, the first fossils to show a clear transition between dinosaurs and birds. "For years cetaceans were used by creationists to support their views because for a long time the most primitive whales known had bodies that looked like modern whales, so there seemed to be this enormous gap in evolution. But since the early 1990s, there's been a rapid succession of fossils from India and Pakistan that beautifully fill that gap," he said.[20]


Thewissen acquired access to a collection of embryos of the pantropical spotted dolphin (Stenella attenuata). This dolphin has hind limbs as an embryo, but the limbs are lost as the embryo develops. This work formed the basis for a study of gene control in development. Thewissen's lab studied the unusual aspects of the dentition of these dolphins, namely the absence of replacement teeth, the similarity of shape of teeth across the toothrow, and the great number of their teeth.

Fetus of dolphin showing similarities between land mammals and modern cetaceans. The pelvic remnant is seen as a small blue bar below the tail, and the many bones of the forelimb match those of land mammals. The large brains of cetaceans are growing and not protected by bone at this stage. The fetal tissues were made transparent, cartilage was stained blue, and bone purple. Scale bar is 1 cm.

Sensory organ evolutionEdit

To gain access to modern whale soft tissues, Thewissen began travelling to Alaska's north slope. Working in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Management of the North Slope Borough, Thewissen gained access to the small number of bowhead and beluga whales which are captured yearly by native Alaskans as an indigenous exemption to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Here, Thewissen discovered that parts of the bowhead whale's brain are dedicated to smell (the olfactory bulbs), something which had never before been confirmed in any cetaceans, and which confirmed the long-held views of Inupiat Alaskans that bowheads have a sense of smell.[24]

The organ of balance, yellow, and that of hearing, blue, in this 43 million year old Andrewsiphius
The braincase of 43 million year old Remingtonocetus, with brain (green) and ear (yellow and red) showing through, as based on high resolution CT scan. The large green canal on the right carries the olfactory nerve and indicates that these whales had a developed sense of smell.


Age estimation of modern whalesEdit

Thewissen's lab was instrumental in estimating the age of Arctic whales. This data is crucial to gathering data on overall population rate of increase or decrease.[26]

Some cetaceans such as belugas lay down layers in their teeth, analogous to tree rings. Thewissen's lab determined that within the large-scale layers there are several sets of finer repeated layers. One of these finer sets is linked to daily processes, and indeed, the thickness of 365 of these layers matches one large scale layer, suggesting that the large-scale layers reflect annual intervals.[27]

Bowhead whales do not have teeth, but their baleen plates grow with age and can be used to estimate age in younger whales. It was already established that one of the bones of the ear, the tympanic part of the temporal bone, grows annually by laying down a layer of bone. Thewissen's lab studied this for bowhead and determined that this bone may also be used for determining age in this species. Both dental aging and the temporal bone aging are effective methods for determining age in fossil whales.[28]

Thewissen also established that in some cases the presence of earwax in bowhead whales may be used to establish age. In some baleen whales, earwax grows in annual layers that are not expelled through the ear canal and this can be used in age estimation.[29][30]

Brain evolution researchEdit

Thewissen's current work involves counting neurons in bowhead and beluga whale brain samples, to assess brain function, in Utqiagvik—formerly Barrow—Alaska. Though the size of the brains of sperm whales and killer whales are larger than those of any other organism, including humans,[31] a better measure of brain function is to determine how many neurons there are in the brain. Suzana Herculano-Houzel has developed a method of counting of neurons of human and other animals' brains and the relation between the cerebral cortex area and thickness and number of cortical folds. Humans and other primates pack about twice the number of neurons in a cubed inch of brain as most other mammals.[32]

Appearances in science films and TV showsEdit

Discovery Channel, "Paleoworld", 1994."Back To The Seas" Paleoworld (Season 1)

BBC, "Walking with Beasts", 2001 (work covered with extensive interviews).[33][34][35][36]

NHK (Japanese National Public Television), "The Oceans", 1996

Discovery Channel, 2001 "The Oceans".

Discovery Channel (BBC produced), 2006. Life in the Womb (Prenatal development in dolphins).[37]

Animals in the Womb, 2006[38]

Evolutions (National Geographic Channel), 2009.[39]

Morphed, 2009[40]


2014. J. G. M. Thewissen. The Walking Whales, from Land to Water in Eight Million Years. University of California Press, 245 pp. https://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520277069

2017. B. Würsig, J. G. M. Thewissen, and K. Kovacs, editors. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, 3rd edition. Academic Press, Elsevier, 1157 pp. https://www.elsevier.com/books/encyclopedia-of-marine-mammals/wursig/978-0-12-804327-1


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  2. ^ Reumer, Jelle (2005). "The Netherlands". Scripta Geologica. 5: 113–118.
  3. ^ a b Thewissen, Hans (Nov 2014). The Walking Whales From Land to Water in Eight Million Years (First ed.). University of California Press; First edition. ISBN 978-0520277069. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  4. ^ Marx, Felix; Lambert, Oliver; Uhen, Mark (2016). Cetacean Paleobiology (TOPA Topics in Paleobiology) (1st ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1118561270.
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  6. ^ a b Thewissen, J.G.M. (14 January 1994). "Fossil Evidence for the Origin of Aquatic Locomotion in Archaeocete Whales". Science. 263 (5144): 210–212. Bibcode:1994Sci...263..210T. doi:10.1126/science.263.5144.210. PMID 17839179.
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  13. ^ Jones, Steve (2000). Almost Like a Whale : The 'Origin of Species' Updated. ISBN 978-0552999588.
  14. ^ Thewissen, Hans. "Walking with Whales The history of cetaceans can serve as a model for both evolutionary dynamics and interdisciplinary collaboration". The Scientist. The Scientist. Retrieved 30 November 2018.
  15. ^ Gingerich, Philip D.; Russell, D. E. (1981). "Pakicetus inachus, A New Archaeocete (Mammalia, Cetacea) from the Early-Middle Eocene Kuldana Formation of Kohat (Pakistan)". Museum of Paleontology, the University of Michigan. 25 (11): 235–246.
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  18. ^ Cooper, Lisa Noelle; Thewissen, J.G.M; Hussain, S. T (2009). "New middle Eocene archaeocetes (Cetacea: Mammalia) from the Kuldana Formation of northern Pakistan". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 29 (4): 1289–1299. doi:10.1671/039.029.0423.
  19. ^ Ranga, Rao, A (1971). "New mammals from Murree (Kalakot Zone) of the Himalayan foot hills near Kalakot, Jammu and Kashmir state, India". Journal of the Geological Society of India. 12 (2): 124–134.
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  21. ^ Palca, Joe (September 19, 2001). "Walking with Whales". National Public Radio. All Things Considered.
  22. ^ Zimmer, Carl (2007-12-19). "Whales: From So Humble A Beginning…". National Geographic. National Geographic. Retrieved 1 December 2018.
  23. ^ Borenstein, Seth (December 20, 2007). "Scientist says small animal might be the missing link to whales". Daily Press Newport News, Virginia.
  24. ^ Thewissen, J.G.M. (2008). Sensory Evolution on the Threshold Adaptations in Secondarily Aquatic Vertebrates (1st ed.). University of California. ISBN 9780520252783.
  25. ^ Thewissen, J.G.M. (April 2001). "Olfaction and brain size in the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus)". Marine Mammal Science. 27 (2): 282–294. doi:10.1111/j.1748-7692.2010.00406.x.
  26. ^ Thewissen, J.G.M.; Waugh, David (January 2018). "Validation of Growth Layer Group (GLG) depositional rate using daily incremental growth lines in the dentin of beluga (Delphinapterus leucas (Pallas, 1776)) teeth". PLOS ONE. 13 (1): e0190498. Bibcode:2018PLoSO..1390498W. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0190498. PMC 5770016. PMID 29338011.
  27. ^ Berger, Mathew (June 2016). "The Story of the Arctic Is Written in Whale Earwax" (June 2016). Newsweek. Newsweek.
  28. ^ Rehorek, Susan; Thewissen, Hans (2018). "Structure of the external auditory meatus of the Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) and its relation to their seasonal migration". Journal of Anatomy.
  29. ^ Thewissen, J.G.M.; Sensor, Jennifer (April 2018). "Age estimation in bowhead whales using tympanic bulla histology and baleen isotopes". Marine Mammal Journal. 34 (2): 347–364. doi:10.1111/mms.12476.
  30. ^ Berger, Matthew (June 18, 2016). "The Story of the Arctic Is Written in Whale Earwax". Newsweek. Newsweek.
  31. ^ Thewissen, J. G. M; Nummela, S. (2008). Sensory Evolution on the Threshold: Adaptations in Secondarily Aquatic Vertebrates. University of California Press, Berkeley. pp. 257–286. ISBN 978-0520252783.
  32. ^ Herculano-Houzel, Suzana (March 2016). The Human Advantage A New Understanding of How Our Brain Became Remarkable. MIT Press. ISBN 9780262034258.
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  38. ^ "Animals in the Womb".
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  40. ^ "Morphed". imdb.