The Cooler: Bob Paine Looks Forward

September 13, 2013

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Bob Paine. Image credit: Benjamin Drummond /

Great new interview on Biodiverse Perspectives with the legendary ecologist Bob Paine. In case you don’t know who Bob Paine is:

  • He invented the seminal ecology concepts of “keystone species” and “trophic cascades”;
  • He has so many former grad students in prominent teaching positions that Ed Yong (quite wonderfully) profiled his “academic dynasty” in Nature last year, and
  • He pioneered the now-dominant school of “kick-it-and-see” ecology in the 1960s — “tinkering with nature,” as Yong puts it, “at a time when most ecologists simply observed it.”

Paine is now 80, and diamond-sharp as well as a little wistful in the interview, but still very much looking forward, and taking no prisoners when it comes to conservation and conservation science. It’s a rich read. Some money quotes:

“We learn almost nothing from ecosystem programs when we study large entities. The focus might be energy flux, production or the amount of carbon produced per square meter per year etc.– there isn’t much biology there and there is very little room for top down effects.”

“[A] lot of what we study are apex predators. They matter. We should be asking — what are the general consequences going to be when we remove all the sharks from the sea? Or conversely, if the great whales recover, what will those effects be? I have no idea what the answers are, but these are questions we should be asking. The answers change our perception of the whole system from the top down.”

“I’ve excessively enjoyed a lifetime of observing nature, bird watching, gardening, teaching and research but by 2100 will that have made a bit of difference? I don’t believe so, and worry that these great pleasures, both personal and academic, will be increasingly difficult to achieve. A diminished nature will surely be present but I suspect it will be more boring, less stimulating. Ecologists will have to become time travelers to practice their brand of science.”

Read the interview.

Bob Lalasz

Bob Lalasz is the director of science communications at The Nature Conservancy and the editor of the new Cool Green Science. A long-time editor and writer, he was previously the Conservancy's associate director of digital marketing. He now blogs here about the Conservancy's scientific research and on-the-ground work as well as larger conservation science and science communications issues. More from Bob

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