Science hosts many such dynasties: successions of academic leaders related not by blood, but by mentorship. Each generation inherits attitudes, philosophies and technical skills from the one before. Some, like Paine's, are particularly fertile, sprouting lush branches on the academic tree and driving a field in a new direction. But Paine's dynasty is remarkable not just for its scientific influence, but for its dedicated, tight-knit nature. Thanks to Paine's original — and widely applicable — ideas, his emphasis on independent thought by his protégés and his fun, irreverent nature, almost every member has stayed in science, and specifically in ecology or marine biology.
“It's a surprising list of superstars — great mentors of graduate students, who have published interesting work,” says Paine, who retired in 1998 but is still active in the field. These days, Paine can be spotted at ecological meetings by the swarm of academic descendants milling around him. Perhaps in this rich family, there are lessons about why some scientific dynasties flourish and grow, whereas others never bud.
Paine's name is synonymous with coastal life, but his introduction to natural history began on terra firma. As a child in Massachusetts, he went on regular birdwatching walks with a neighbor, who insisted that he record everything he saw. “That was extraordinarily good training,” says Paine; it instilled an appreciation for nature and careful observation.
After studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and two years' military service, he got his PhD in zoology from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, under the late Fred E. Smith. A qualified ecologist in search of an ecosystem, Paine started his own group at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1962 and embarked on his seminal work in Makah Bay. But despite its abundance of starfish, the bay was plagued with marauding beachcombers, who would tamper with Paine's experiments. He craved isolation.
He found it in 1967, after a salmon-fishing trip in the Pacific Ocean, when on a whim he landed on a small island called Tatoosh, just off Washington's Olympic Peninsula. “I just sat around and gawked,” he says. “The place was a wonderland of pattern.” He saw hundreds of species jostling for space and dominance. He saw starfish prising open mussels, and predatory sea snails drilling into barnacles. He saw whales and sea lions swimming offshore, while raptors and seabirds hovered overhead. And he saw … no one else. With the island protected by the local Makah tribe, there was no one around to ruin his experiments. “I said: this is where I'm going to work.”
Paine repeated his starfish-clearing experiment on Tatoosh, and saw the same events unfold on a bigger scale: the loss of Pisaster triggered a black landslide of mussels that crushed its way down 40 meters of coast. Elsewhere, in a zone dominated by brown algae, Paine systematically added or excluded seven grazing animals by building rings of paint and putty. Two of the species — a sea urchin and a mollusk called a chiton — would annihilate the algae when present in high numbers. The others, all mollusks, had no effect. “It was a colossal effort,” says Paine, and the first time that anyone had quantified the influence of so many species in a community. It showed that most are weak interactors, whose absence goes unnoticed. Only a few — including keystone species — are strong interactors that can radically reshape their world. “It was a starting place for untangling the complexity of interactions,” says Paine. “If all species were created equal, you wouldn't know where to start.”