July 30, 2013

Fifty years of ecological insights earn UW biologist international award

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News and Information | Biology

The notion of keystone species, the loss of which can reverberate throughout the food web, is a concept taken for granted today but was unheard of when University of Washington biologist Robert Paine pioneered it in the 1960s.

Man on rocky shore with pile of couple dozen starfish at hs feet

Robert Paine with a pile of Pisaster ochraceus, a common starfish.

In recognition of that contribution and others Paine, a UW professor emeritus, has been awarded this year’s International Cosmos Prize. The prize carries a cash award of 40 million yen, about $408,000, and has previously gone to well-known conservationists such as David Attenborough, the leaders behind the Census of Marine Life project, directors of the world’s largest botanic gardens and last year’s recipient, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson.

The award was announced July 30 in Japan by its sponsor, the Expo ’90 Foundation.

Paine has been with the UW since 1962, served as chair of the Department of Zoology for eight years and has been an emeritus professor since 1998.

It was at Makah Bay on the Makah Indian reservation on the Washington coast that Paine developed the keystone species concept: the idea that apex predators drive the diversity in an ecosystem. Before Paine’s experiments, scientists believed that each species had equal bearing on the functioning of a habitat.  He showed that when the common starfish Pisaster ochraceus was removed from a natural intertidal shore, its preferred prey – mussels – freely proliferated and pushed out other organisms such as algae and snails.

This cascade effect first observed by Paine helped explain the importance of other keystone species such as killer whales, wolves, sea otters and lions in maintaining species richness in various ecosystems.

“Although Dr. Paine’s work on the starfish was conducted nearly half a century ago, its significance is still highly valued today,” according to the Cosmos Prize judges. “This is not simply a matter of cooperation and collaboration; eat-or-be eaten struggles and competition also play essential parts. Dr. Paine has clarified these facts using very explicit approaches, providing important guidance for considering present-day biodiversity.”

His life’s work was recently featured in a Nature science story.

Book cover features purple and red organisms in seawater Paine, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and his doctorate from the University of Michigan, has only worked at one academic institution, the UW. Among other things he’s advised 34 doctoral candidates, served on numerous National Research Council panels and reached out to the public with projects such as a book, “The Intertidal Wilderness,” written to help the public understand the workings of nature, sharpen their observation skills and learn the conservation consequences of altering those workings.

In 21 years of awarding the Cosmos Prize, only the UW has had two winners: Estella Leopold, emeritus professor of biology, was given the award in 2010.

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