Washington's Giant of Trophic Science

UW’s Robert Paine led a cadre of scientists to observe the role of carnivores in ecosystems. His work spawned studies that provide overwhelming evidence of the value of predators in the biosphere.

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” –Isaac Newton

Today, giants walk among us. They may not seem to have the stature of Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, or Descartes, but then, we haven’t had three centuries to judge their work. Similar to scientists of centuries past, our current giants have crushed common beliefs of inherited knowledge, and egos as well, and so their science appears before blind eyes. I’m writing about scientists from a broad group of natural science disciplines that conveniently group under the label “Trophic Science,” the science of our food web.

Daily we go about our lives, often with little thought to our technologies, and probably less thought to their underlying sciences. As a nation we seem content to use science in our daily lives, and in many cases, individually we are alive because of science (an assertion I’m not pursuing, here). At the same time as we revel in the practical applications of science, we fight its new truths as vehemently as the Church in Galileo’s time, as science upsets status quo. A scientific ‘theory’ is refutable by exposing contrary evidence; by the time a hypothesis—a conjecture of how something works—has become a theory, it’s well-established that other scientists have tried to find evidence that the hypothesis is wrong, and have failed. Evolution is a case in point, many non-scientists may believe it wrong, but no one has shown a failure in the theory, and evolution is accepted fact among those for whom science trumps beliefs and opinions.

On July 15, 2011, twenty-four eminent scientists published an article in Science magazine titled "Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth." The short article is a synopsis of our unintended destruction of our food web, whether from land or aquatic sources, by reducing predators. About seventy years of careful scientific observations and experiments have yielded overwhelming evidence that we need predators—carnivores that control the consumers of plant growth, regardless of whether it’s aquatic or terrestrial vegetation. At the top of the food web, we have apex predators, adult carnivores that have no predators—except Homo sapiens, man (of course). It’s that “of course” that is problematic.

Listed in the middle of the author list of the Science article is Robert T. Paine, University of Washington Professor Emeritus of Biology. Dr. Paine would be a giant of Newtonian stature, even if he weren’t nearly two meters tall (6’ 6”). Soon after arriving at the University of Washington, Bob started an experiment at Mukkaw Bay, which simply described is “What would happen if we removed the top predator from an ecosystem?” The ecosystem was a tide pool with established inhabitants. Near at hand was a similar tide pool with similar inhabitants—a control group. The top predator was a certain starfish, and Bob would toss the starfish into the bay from the experimental pool. It didn’t take long for the starfish’s prey (mussels) to irrupt—grow uncontrollably—taking over the tide pool, and forcing out the other inhabitants. The control pool continued normal functioning. Some fifty years since first publication of Dr. Paine’s tide pool experiment, scientists, by sundry experiments and studies, have replicated his results in other ecosystems, aquatic and terrestrial. Robert T. Paine is the godfather of Trophic Science and a giant of Science. Bob has given us broad shoulders, and many have piggybacked on them.

Newton might have better expressed the truth had he added “…with open eyes and open mind.” Today, as a nation, we close our eyes and minds to the logical, and most likely inevitable, outcomes of our behavior. We whistle in our self-made darkness, and hope to live life unscathed. Instead of leaving a rich heritage of ecologically sound environment and wildlife, we are leaving decaying photographic film, and digital media, to show our descendents how the world looked in the middle of our experiment to eradicate the great and lesser carnivores. They will get to see pictures of our forests, bereft of understory, and wonder how we could have failed to notice. They will read of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem wherein we returned wolves, and saw the renewal of a dying habitat, only to hunt the wolves once again, because wolves might raise the price of meat, or lower short-term profits. We encourage high populations of deer and elk—forest locusts—so 5 percent won’t have to hunt too hard to find meat or a trophy, even though it destroys environment for 100 percent of us. We unreasonably fear sharks, wolves, cougars, and bears, so we ignore their destruction by man, and the resulting destruction of our environment.

There is hope. Yellowstone shows that ecological healing can take place, and scientists such as Michael Soulé (another giant) have proposed ‘rewilding’ America to heal our landscapes. As a nation, we can choose to be like the man who tells the medical technician who’s about to take a blood sample, “I don’t believe in statistics, take it all,” or, we can pay attention to our science, and try to heal the illness that pervades our planet’s ecosystems. We don’t need a “second opinion,” the Trophic Downgrading article provided twenty-four ‘opinions’ based on solid, repeatable, peer-reviewed scientific observations from more than fifty years!

Let’s not take it all.

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Enviro May 03, 2012 at 09:17 PM
The post goes well beyond starfish in a pool. Humans are destroying the ecological basis for their own survival. I call it the "Now Generation." Use all resources now, save nothing for future generations. The writer is almost poetic and very entertaining. We need more environmental sanity as presented in his writings.
Enviro May 03, 2012 at 10:22 PM
One question: What books would Mr. McCoy recommend for further info on this topic?
Bob McCoy May 04, 2012 at 12:58 AM
Unfortunately, Enviro, not only do I agree with your statement, I would suppose that many scientists would also agree. I believe that was the motivation for the” Trophic Downgrading” report in Science magazine. Science Daily ran an article discussing the downgrading report (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110714142135.htm), quoting one of the co-authors, William Ripple of Oregon State, who was talking about the global loss of predators and trophic collapse: "In a broad view, the collapse of these ecosystems has reached a point where this doesn't just affect wolves or aspen trees, deforestation or soil or water," Ripple said. "These predators and processes ultimately protect humans. This isn't just about them, it's about us." One would hope that blunt words from serious observers of ecosystems would sound an alarm, but denial seems to be our current state towards science. We have the giants to see farther, we just prefer our eyes closed to sleep and dream of our world full of unlimited resources. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” (Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises)
Bob McCoy May 04, 2012 at 05:20 AM
For a book that covers the field in an entertaining, compelling style, making the science accessible (and documented), start with “Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators,” by William Stolzenberg. http://www.thewildthings.net/ I have a hypothesis (I call it “the Paine Hypothesis,” (soon to be a theory)) that any book I read on wildlife ecology will mention Robert T. Paine by page 30. If it’s an article, he’ll be a co-author of at least one article in the references. In WTWTW, Chapter One’s title is “Arms of the Starfish.” For more primary sources, look at “Trophic Cascades: Predators, Prey, and the Changing Dynamics of Nature,” edited by Terborgh and Estes. http://islandpress.org/ip/books/book/islandpress/T/bo8022716.html Thank you for asking.
Sandie Hoffman May 04, 2012 at 10:40 PM
So well said, Bob. We better wake up soon.


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