National Wildlife Refuge System

Collaboration in the Central Pacific

By Eleanor Sterling and Erin Vintinner

photo of palmyra atoll sign
The human population at Palmyra Atoll Refuge varies as Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium scientists and refuge personnel shuttle on and off the atoll.
Credit: Erin Vintinner/Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History

Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, about 1,000 miles southwest of Honolulu, is truly isolated. Its 52 islets encircle three lagoons and are surrounded by a diverse 16,000–acre coral reef ecosystem. It is a rare protected atoll in 450,000 square miles of ocean for nesting seabirds, migratory fishes and threatened sea turtles, and it has never been permanently settled.

Its location, rich biological systems and lack of persistent human pressures make it a singular setting for research. In 2004, several public and private institutions formed the Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium (PARC). Its mission is to understand the terrestrial, marine and climate systems of the atoll and the central Pacific and advance the conservation of island and coastal systems worldwide.

PARC members include the American Museum of Natural History; Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Stanford University; The Nature Conservancy; the U.S. Geological Survey; the University of California, Santa Barbara; the University of Hawaii at Manoa; and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Scientists from these institutions periodically shuttle on and off the refuge to conduct research across an array of subspecialties.

  • Biodiversity research focuses on understanding healthy outer reef systems and restoring lagoon and terrestrial systems. For example, PARC scientists seek to understand coral settlement and growth patterns and ecological mechanisms related to reef resilience. They assess community composition and interactions within and across the food web in Palmyra´s terrestrial, lagoon, reef and pelagic systems. They also study connectivity between Palmyra populations and those across the Pacific Basin.

  • Large predator research. In most reef ecosystems, large predators have virtually disappeared, but PARC scientists have found that Palmyra Atoll is home to abundant large predator populations. This provides an unparalleled opportunity to study predators´ role in shaping marine ecosystems. Scientists have placed acoustic receivers within the lagoon system and attached acoustic tags to sharks, other predators and their prey to track movements. Other scientists are unraveling the role of tiny predators—parasites—in the ecosystem.

  • Lagoon research includes studying the history of Palmyra’s geo–alterations and the dynamics of the altered systems in terms of hydrology, sediment supply and transport, and biodiversity. This work allows scientists to understand how human disturbance—such as the U.S. military’s modification of the atoll’s environs during World War II—affects atolls and their marine resources.

  • Terrestrial conservation research focuses on invasive species, such as rats and scale insects, and guides mitigation and restoration efforts. Palmyra’s many islets and well-documented history of invasions make it an ideal place to do such research. Scientists are profiling previously undocumented long–term effects of invasive plants on seabird communities, ecosystem nutrient levels, and ultimately community diversity and food web complexity. Researchers are also looking across terrestrial, lagoon, and marine ecosystems to characterize the complex interactions between the atoll’s unique physical, chemical and biological processes.

  • Climate and biogeography research at Palmyra Atoll focuses on changing climate and oceanographic patterns. Situated at the boundary between the eastern cool tongue and western warm pool of the Pacific and at the junction of the northern and southern trade winds, Palmyra experiences a broad range of natural variation in pH. It is therefore an ideal place to study the potential effects of climate change on marine systems. PARC scientists seek to better understand the impact of changing ocean temperatures and chemistry on atoll ecology and to assess short– and long–term effects for similar island systems. This research will provide improved understanding of sea–level rise and ocean acidification on tropical reef environments. By understanding the range of conditions under which different species thrive, PARC scientists can model future scenarios to help devise the best conservation plans.

Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge offers a powerful complement to existing Pacific research stations, and through coordinated research with global colleagues, PARC is poised to address some of the most pressing conservation and restoration challenges of our time.

Eleanor Sterling is director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Erin Vintinner is a biodiversity specialist at the center.

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Refuge Update March/April 2011

Last updated: April 12, 2011