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An ancient whale gets a new name to honor a UCSD professor

Gary Robbins, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Science & Technology News

SAN DIEGO -- He's discovered many animal fossils. But to have a species bear his name?

University of California San Diego paleontologist Dick Norris didn't see that coming.

"My mom is tickled pink and I think my father would have been very delighted," said Norris, a researcher at UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

He is the son of the late Ken Norris, one of the most revered figures in the history of marine mammal research.

An ancient whale species that had been mislabeled long ago has been renamed Norrisanima mioceana to correct the record and honor the father-son duo's contributions to science and teaching.

The change was made by Swarthmore College biologist Matthew Leslie, who became enthralled by Dick Norris' teaching ability while he was earning his doctorate at Scripps.

 

"Dick has this exuberance that is infectious," said Leslie, who studies the evolution of whales. "He gets students out in the field, gets their hands dirty, gets their boots muddy. It gives students a sense of agency about natural history. I know it was huge for me."

After he left Scripps, Leslie did postdoctoral research at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the very institution that had misidentified an extinct whale species a century ago.

The Smithsonian called the species Megaptera miocaena, believing that it was an ancient relative of today's humpback whales. The decision was based on an analysis of fossils that had been collected from the Santa Barbara area.

Leslie took a closer look and came up with a different conclusion.

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