Interview with Robert Paine, July 30, 2012

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


Robert Paine was the president of the Ecological Society of America from 1979-1980. He became a professor at the University of Washington in 1962, and he remained there for his entire career. In this interview he discusses his education, career, and research, including his studies at Tatoosh Island and his study at Makah Bay, which lead to his proposal on the concept of keystone species.

Interview Notes

Bob collected mushrooms as a kid with his father; his parents were enthusiastic about encouraging his interest in birds; he bought his own binoculars and was adopted by bird watchers in the Cambridge area, including Ludlow Griscom. Bob became an ornithologist and at the age of 14 was in the Harvard museums. He would hang out with Ernst Mayr as an undergraduate; his parents were friends with Mayr, and he was too until the day Mayr died. He collected birds in southern Mexico, and he saw North American wood warblers there. He became interested in how they were portioning the environment.

Initially he was in geology at Michigan, but Fred Smith encouraged him to be his student in ecology. Fred was a brilliant “hands-off teacher,” which was fine with Bob.

His career at the University of Washington benefitted greatly from excellent graduate students, working in the marine environment, and he collaborated with Tommy Edmonton and Gordon Orians. Bob focused on experimental manipulation, which led to keystone species hypothesis.

Philosophy for educating students 

I let them do what they wanted to do, and I was uniformly interested in what they wanted to do. They had to be self-motivated. Around 70% were NSF fellows. I suffered along with them doing field work, and we became very close.

How did keystone species concept develop?

Bob got NSF research support for a postdoc at Scripps, with Fred Smith’s influence, who was then at NSF. Great respect for Charles Elton, who “got it he right.” He saw starfish predators eating moon clams, which ate other things, like “gastropods drilling barnacles.” In 1963, initiated he starfish removal, and mussels took over. The more mussels, the more starfish, so he had to keep the starfish population down, which he did.

The roll of disturbance in ecosystems

Exposed rocky shores have large beds of mussels, and are subject to an annual cycle of disturbance and recovery. Pattern changes from year to year, depending on disturbance intensity. Dick Root got Simon Levin together with Bob, and Simon spent a sabbatical with Bob. He describes this research during the recording. Simon provided the models.

Focus on disturbance caused by the results of manipulating a predator, and the global spread of human influences, and also, the cumulative work of various kinds of disturbances (and recovery). Ecologists became aware that we live in a world that is not at equilibrium, and biological processes were involved.

Bob describes the importance of long-term research at one site.

Experiments should be based on prior knowledge, and what’s “doable.” Single site observation enables one to do this.

When are ideas ready to be generalizable?

He talks again about the keystone species concept, and how it could and was applied to other ecosystems. It’s important to study variables that are measurable in the field. Working with someone like Simon Levin was very important. The generalizations come through mathematics.

What’s the role of ecologists in policy and politics? Communication is very important at all levels; and it’s a matter of education, at all levels. Jane Lubchenco (M.S. at Washington with Bob, but then followed her husband to Boston), a good scientist, and now director of NOAA. Also mentions another student. All scientists should be involved at one or another level in policy and politics. Books can do it, and he’s done one (now in second edition) that illustrates biological interactions (illustrated with color photos) on the sea coast, intended for the serious naturalist of any age.

Involvement with ESA; president in 1979 

How has ESA and ecology changed over the years? The number of sole-authored papers has dropped dramatically. Team research has increased. He describes the implications.
Meetings have become much larger, with consequences. Journals have become more “sciency.” More quantitative; less natural history, he thinks.

What else?

“I’ve had a terrific time.” He is concerned about losing the “natural world,” and regrets not having done enough to protect it.





Oral History Item Type Metadata


50 minutes


Robert Paine and Douglas Sprugel, “Interview with Robert Paine, July 30, 2012,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed February 26, 2024,