Posted by: Loren Coleman on February 25th, 2007
As important as he became as a scientist, he never stopped being the boy who came home for dinner with a frog in one pocket and a crawfish in the other. His love of all marine life was both infectious and inspiring.Paul G. Haaga Jr, museum board member
recalls John E. Heyning
John Heyning, deputy director of the research and collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, places one of the specimens used to genetically identify a rare-beaked whale on display.
John E. Heyning, 50, one of the world’s foremost marine biologist, has died. Heyning’s speciality was ziphiids, beaked whales, which make up about a quarter of the whale population, and their evolution. He also showed that the common dolphin, long believed to be one species, was actually two. He was a marine biologist with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and helped build one of the world’s largest collections of marine mammal specimens (over 4000 specimens). He authored monographs and the book Masters of the Ocean Realm: Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises
Most new mammal species at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century have not been discovered on land, but in the oceans and on the nearby shores. Most have been ziphiids. At a 2001 Vancouver conference, as many as twenty-six additional new ziphiid species were documented by molecular analysis. The discoveries being discussed there were so common that year the joke among cryptozoologists was that “you can’t go to the beach in the Western Hemisphere without tripping over a new ziphiid.”
Most of the 83 species of living cetaceans known are based on specimens collected during the 18th and 19th centuries. Of the more recently described new species, most have been beaked whales due to the difficulty in studying these rarely seen deep-water animals. For example, only 3% (1/34) of living oceanic dolphins (Delphinidae) have been described since 1900, whereas 40% (8/20) of beaked whale species have been described in the same timeframe.
Heyning (above) was one of those leading the way, along with other scientists such as James Mead, Robert L. Pitman, and Merel Dalebout, in documenting and discovering these new ziphiids. Known as the “Whale Man,” Heyning earned the nickname through decades of hauling away stranded whales and other cetaceans from Southern California beaches. Heyning is also credited with discovering some interesting aligned new species, such as the whale lice (below) that live on cetaceans.
In the mid-1970s, four rare beaked whales washed ashore on the coast near San Diego, California. Then in 2002, the new species Mesoplodon perrini, named after marine mammal systematist and conservationist William F. Perrin, was formally described in the quarterly journal Marine Mammal Science, after a genetic analysis of those specimens. Two of the five specimens used to identify the new species were archived at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, with one (below) on public display.
The current finding is remarkable in several ways. This discovery exemplifies how museum specimens collected decades, or even centuries, ago continue to contribute to our current understanding of the natural world. It is also remarkable that the new species washed ashore along the California coast; waters considered relatively well known biologically. The recent recognition of a new whale from these relatively well scrutinized waters highlights how little we know about the biological diversity in the ocean. John Heyning, speaking in 2002, about Mesoplodon perrini.
John E. Heyning, still with passion for animals, died February 17, 2007, at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance, California, after suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease for more than three years, the museum announced on February 24th.