News Source: 
UW Today
July 30, 2013

The notion of keystone species, the loss of which can reverberate throughout the food web, is a concept taken for granted today but was unheard of when University of Washington biologist Robert Paine pioneered it in the 1960s.

In recognition of that contribution and others Paine, a UW professor emeritus, has been awarded this year’s International Cosmos Prize. The prize carries a cash award of 40 million yen, about $408,000, and has previously gone to well-known conservationists such as David Attenborough, the leaders behind the Census of Marine Life project, directors of the world’s largest botanic gardens and last year’s recipient, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson.

The award was announced July 30 in Japan by its sponsor, the Expo ’90 Foundation.

Paine has been with the UW since 1962, served as chair of the Department of Zoology for eight years and has been an emeritus professor since 1998.

It was at Makah Bay on the Makah Indian reservation on the Washington coast that Paine developed the keystone species concept: the idea that apex predators drive the diversity in an ecosystem. Before Paine’s experiments, scientists believed that each species had equal bearing on the functioning of a habitat.  He showed that when the common starfish Pisaster ochraceus was removed from a natural intertidal shore, its preferred prey – mussels – freely proliferated and pushed out other organisms such as algae and snails.

This cascade effect first observed by Paine helped explain the importance of other keystone species such as killer whales, wolves, sea otters and lions in maintaining species richness in various ecosystems.