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Originally published Friday, August 2, 2013 at 10:01 PM

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Retired UW prof wins $408,000 for groundbreaking ecology work

Robert T. Paine, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, has won a little-known prize from a Japanese foundation for his contributions to the study of ecology.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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Thank you Dr. Bob! A wonderful story our world desperately needs. MORE
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The fax came from Japan, and the news was a big surprise: Robert T. Paine had won an international prize for his contributions to science, an award worth millions of yen (about $408,000) — a prize he’d never heard of before.

If he’d never heard of the International Cosmos Prize, you’ve probably never heard of him. But Bob Paine’s work changed the study of ecology, and his influence on dozens of up-and-coming scientists has helped shape the field to this day.

The retired University of Washington zoology professor, who has spent his entire career here, “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’s.

“In his five-decade career, he has trained a thriving dynasty of around 40 students and postdocs, many of whom are now leading ecologists themselves and who consider their time with Paine formative,” according to the science magazine Nature, in a story published in January.

This week, the Commemorative Foundation for the International Garden and Greenery Exposition in Osaka, Japan, honored him with the International Cosmos Prize, which carries the big cash award.

Paine, 80, has been retired for 15 years, yet he still shows up on campus daily to work out of his cluttered basement office, in Kincaid Hall, writing and contributing to research papers. Earlier this week, dressed in bluejeans and Birkenstocks, he took time out to describe his life’s work.

A graduate of Harvard University and the University of Michigan, Paine moved to Washington in the 1960s and began at the UW as an assistant zoology professor.

Soon after his arrival, he discovered the wildest and best place to do the kind of research he was interested in: tiny, storm-lashed Tatoosh Island, an uninhabited rocky island six-tenths of a mile off the Olympic Peninsula’s Cape Flattery.

The island was part of the Makah Indian Reservation. Paine struck a deal with Makah leaders, sealed with a handshake, to allow him to research the island’s marine life. Their only restriction: “Don’t mess with the graves.”

But Paine had eyes only for the rocky beaches. “For an ecologist like myself, that is a wonderland,” Paine said of Tatoosh Island. “It’s filled with pattern, it’s rich in species. Ecologists derive inspiration from pattern.”

Earlier in his career, Paine had been powerfully influenced by a professor who believed that a well-designed experiment could lead ecologists to discoveries much more quickly than years of careful, but tedious, sampling. Tatoosh Island became a laboratory for Paine and dozens of graduate students who accompanied him there over the years.

“Experimental manipulation is not only more interesting, it’s much more fun,” Paine said. “And getting results you can interpret, if you test an idea — that’s what science is all about.”

One of Paine’s earliest — and, as it turned out, most influential — experiments involved removing from one of the beaches a species of starfish that preys on mussels, then watching what happened.

When the starfish were removed, the mussel population exploded. From that experiment, and others that followed, Paine derived his “keystone species” hypothesis — the idea that some species have an outsized impact on their environments, and that changes to the populations of those species can have far-reaching consequences.

It’s an idea that has wide currency today among ecologists, who have used it to explain the role of wolves in the wild (remove the wolves, and the white-tailed deer population skyrockets), or lions and leopards in Africa (fewer big cats means destructive baboons proliferate, spreading disease and eating farmers’ crops).

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.

“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.”

This is not to suggest that Paine is picking winners and losers, though. He’s not saying a beach of mussels is bad, or that reintroducing wolves is the right decision. He’s simply asking people to understand that the natural world is complex, and that it’s essential to understand how it works if you want to try 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.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.

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