SEATTLE — A retired University of Washington professor has won a surprise award worth $408,000 for his contributions to the study of ecology.
Retired zoology professor Robert T. Paine had never heard of the International Cosmos Prize until he received a fax from Japan last week telling him he’d won, The Seattle Times reported. The award came from the Commemorative Foundation for the International Garden and Greenery Exposition in Osaka.
The 80-year-old professor, a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Michigan, came to Washington in the late 1960s and under an agreement with the Makah Tribe, he made tiny, uninhabited Tatoosh Island off the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula his laboratory. In one influential experiment, he removed a certain species of starfish that preys on mussels from a beach to see what would happen.
The mussel population exploded, and Paine developed his “keystone species” hypothesis — the idea that some species have an outsized impact on their environments. The theory remains popular among ecologists, who have used it to explain the role of wolves, lions and leopards in the wild. Remove the wolves, and the white-tailed deer population skyrockets. Remove the lions and leopards, and baboons proliferate, spreading disease and eating farmers’ crops.
“Dr. Paine was the first in the world to demonstrate experimentally that even a single species with a small population may be crucial to the stability of an ecological community,” wrote the jurors of the Cosmos Prize, “and that predators having negative impact on other species play vital roles in maintaining entire communities.”
An article in the journal Nature this year credited him with training “a thriving dynasty of around 40 students and postdocs, many of whom are now leading ecologists themselves.”
Paine “has certainly had a huge impact on the field of ecology,” said Tim Wootton, a professor of ecology at the University of Chicago and former graduate student of Paine.
Wootton, who took over Paine’s Tatoosh Island studies after he retired, said Paine’s experiments “really led the way to making ecology more rigorous.” His idea of using experimental approaches to test hypotheses — “instead of weaving stories about what might be going on in nature,” which was more common at the time — helped change the way the natural world was studied, he said.
Paine has been retired for 15 years, yet he still shows up on campus daily to work out of his cluttered basement office, writing and contributing to research papers.
Ultimately, he says, he wants people to understand that the natural world is complex, and that it’s essential to understand how it works before trying to fix or restore it.
“You can’t manage out of ignorance,” he said. “You have to know what species do, whom they eat, what role these prey species play. When you know that, you can begin to make some intelligent decisions.”