Around the Pier: A Volume of Praise


Marine Ecology, the official journal of Italy’s Stazione Zoologica di Napoli, has dedicated its latest volume to Scripps professor and marine biologist Paul Dayton.

The honor was originally bestowed on the occasion of Dayton’s 70th birthday, but has since become a commemoration of his retirement this year. The volume includes 12 studies, authored by an assortment of Dayton’s prior students, friends, and post-doctoral researchers. Dayton’s children penned one of the opening editorials that describe in very personal terms how their father’s love of nature shaped their lives and changed the field of ecology.

Finding a range of capable contributors for the volume was no problem, according to Marine Ecology editor Lisa Levin. “Dayton has trained real leaders in the field,” she said. His Scripps students have gone on to establish careers in research institutions as well as in government. “They’re in all walks of life – affecting policy and government,” she said.

Levin is now the director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps, but she remembers well her days as a graduate student when Dayton first came to Scripps as a professor. “He’s always been a visionary,” she said. “Dayton was talking about the ecology of Antarctic communities before the rest of us even realized that there were ecological communities in Antarctica.”

Young professor Dayton quickly gained a following at Scripps in the 1970s, taking students to the field to experience every kind of habitat and teach them the art of scientific observation. Several stories in the volume recount the most humorous or memorable excursions to the field with Dayton.

But Dayton didn’t spend his career exploring sandy deserts, kelp forests, and icy Antarctic waters for the sake of adventure, according to colleagues. “He’s not just a marine biology jock inspired by Jacques Cousteau,” said Dan Simberloff, Nancy Gore Hunger Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Tennessee. “He observes nature to answer important questions in ecology.”

According to Simberloff, it’s not just Dayton’s keen eye for observation that makes him a leader in the field of ecology. “Paul is driven by intellectual honesty, fearlessness, and lack of careerism,” he said — even when his views flout popular thinking in the academic community.

In 2003, Dayton famously stepped into the fray of an emerging argument regarding the use of Marine Protected Areas that put him squarely at odds with some of the leading figures in marine ecology. “He took some really important people to task,” said Simberloff.

Early in his career, Dayton wrote about how physical and climatic disturbances were shaping ecological communities more than competition and predation. It went against the current thinking of the time, but according to Levin, it is exactly the sort of fresh analysis that has kept Dayton on the cutting edge of ecological research.

“Most of us write papers that are cited for a few years,” said Levin. “But Paul’s papers are cited for decades because they are often ahead of their time.”

The special edition of Marine Ecology dedicated to Paul Dayton is laden with high praise for an individual reported by his colleagues to be a modest, if not self-effacing man. The unrestrained tribute may, in fact, prompt readers to wonder what the subject of all this ado has to say in response to the homage. But a response will not be forthcoming — not at this time. Paul Dayton, the perpetual naturalist, is camping in Australia.

— Donna Hesterman

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