Latest News
For Teachers
For Keiki (Kids)
About the Area
Photo Images
Video Images
Maps and Satellite Images
More Info

You are here: /main/research expeditions/CReefs 2006/interviews/pauley

Interview with Gustav Paulay of the Florida Museum of Natural History

Conducted by Andy Collins,
NOAA, NOS, NWHIMNM - Education and Outreach Specialist

Gustav Paulay. Photo: Russell Moffitt.1. What is your affiliation, and where are you from?

I am with the Florida Museum of Natural History, which is a museum associated with the University of Florida. I am the curator for invertebrates and mollusks. I moved to Florida in 2000, and before that I spent 9 years at the University of Guam Marine Lab. Before that I did my post-doctorate at the Smithsonian. My specialty is the Pacific Islands and I have worked here since 1979.

Although I really enjoyed being at the marine station in Guam, as my kids grew older, and for other family reasons it made sense for me to take my current position in Florida. And being at the museum has been great. Although most museums are located in big cities, and neither my wife not I like big cities, the Florida Museum of Natural History is located in small University town, in Gainsville, and it happened to be the right combination of things at the right time.

Lybia edmondsoni. Hawaiian Pom-pom crab. Endemic. Photo: Gustav Paulay.
Lybia edmondsoni. Hawaiian Pom-pom crab. Endemic. Photo: Gustav Paulay
2. How did you become interested in your particular field/profession?

I think that many of us are naturalists at heart, interested in nature and life, and all its bizarre aspects. People that are naturalists at heart often get drawn to it as a kid, and that is certainly the case with me. I was always interested in what animals were around me. I think the turning point, when I decided that there was a job in it, was when I read Dr. Dolittle, and he was a naturalist, and I thought that sounded like a good job, I want to do that. I was probably 7 or 8 years old. Although my fascination with animals started before many teachers really started teaching this kind of stuff, when I went to college, I had several influential teachers.

3. Have you worked in the Hawaiian Archipelago before? Or the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands?

I have worked in Hawaii a little bit, but I have worked mostly in Micronesia, southern Polynesia, Melanesia, and elsewhere in the tropics. Iíve come through Hawaii many times but never had a really active research presence here, though Iíve done little bits of work over the years. This is my first time in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

4. Have you worked on a ship at sea before, such as this one?

Although I have worked at sea a number of times, mostly Iím shore based and working from small boats rather than from major ships like this. There are times when the opportunity to go somewhere is ship based, and so every couple of years I go on an expedition like this, but it is not the norm.

5. What are your areas of interest, or your expertise?

My focus is more geographic than taxonomic. All of my career I have been fascinated by Oceania, so over the years I have worked throughout Oceania and studied a number of different groups, even insects, but certainly a wide range of marine invertebrates. If I would have to put my finger on a particular expertise, I am very familiar with bi-valve mollusks, clams and their relatives, corals, and sea cucumbers. Iíve also done work on echinoderms, crustaceans, mollusks, other cnidarians, sponges, ascidians, worms, etc. There is a lot to look at it. For example, in Guam, there are 42 species of sea cucumber. Once you have seen those 42, then you are either done or you move onto the next group. I moved on, and moved on, and moved on.

6. What excites you about working with these organisms?

Iím more of a generalist. As any kid, I started out in the higher animals, higher vertebrates. For a long time I was really into fishes. I went to college to be an icthyologist, and then my second semester I took a course in invertebrates, and that changed things. I found out that most of the diversity of life is in phylum other than the vertebrates. And if you want to see weird stuff, the invertebrates are the organisms to study.

7. Any favorite stories about a particularly unique organism from your field of interest, such as a unique story of working with them, their ecology or unique adaptation the organism may have?

Dardanus sp. Undescribed Anemone Hermit Crab. Photo: Gustav Paulay.
Dardanus sp. Undescribed Anemone Hermit Crab. Photo: Gustav Paulay

Every island is different. Itís a new adventure and you always discover new things. People always want to know: Are you going to find a new species? Well, every day we get in the water we find new species, the marine environment is so poorly known. Iíll tell you one story. About ten or more years ago I was diving in a cavern in Saipan, in the Marianas Islands, a place called The Grotto. At that time I was already getting familiar with the marine invertebrates of the area, and I saw this little white thing on the cave wall, and I was wondering what it was. It looked like a Bryozoan, which are little colonial animals, and I figured itís about time we move onto Bryozoans. I had my underwater camera and I snapped a picture of it, and took it off the wall and dried it, and it turned out not to be a Bryozoan, and for the next three months I did not have a clue what it was. I had all these weird theories about what it could be, and finally went back and got some more specimens. It turned out to be a very strange ascidian, a sea squirt. It was strange because it had little lids that closed over the openings with this rapid response closure so that it looked like it was flapping. And I thought, sea squirts donít do that. It was a really odd new movement in that group. It really threw me for a loop for several months.

8. Why were you interested in coming on this expedition?

About two years ago I attended the Census of Marine Life Coral Reef Taskforce meeting at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. The purpose of that meeting was to organize a large scale biodiversity study of coral reefs. I like going to new areas and seeing as much diversity as possible, so I was quite keen on participating. At that meeting we discussed several locations and this expedition is what was realized out of those meetings. And going up to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that are so weird and pristine, is an added plus, but Iíd be on this expedition no matter where it went.

9. What do you hope to find at French Frigate Shoals?

If you look at the biogeography of the Hawaiian Islands, obviously there are major differences between the main islands and the Northwestern Islands, and those differences include a lot of marine species that are found in the Northwestern and not the main Hawaiian Islands. Presumably they are found there because there are different habitats, and because certain currents impinge on that part of the archipelago. So there are going to be some unusual organisms. Acropora is one example, it is well known at French Frigate Shoals and not in the rest of the Hawaiian Islands. Everywhere else in the Pacific there is plenty of Acropora, and in most of Hawaii there isnít.

Right now Iím really interested in sea cucumbers, and that is what my lab is working on, and Iím looking for one sea cucumber species. That would be the prize, except for something completely new, in which case that would be the prize, but there is one species of sea cucumber that has been photographed several times, and is in John Hooverís book on Hawaiiís marine invertebrates,
Stichopus sp. Sea cucumber. Undescribed. Photo: Gustav Paulay.
Stichopus sp. Sea cucumber. Undescribed.
Photo: Gustav Paulay.
but it has never been collected. We have some hypotheses about what it is. We think it is a Stichopodid, but without a specimen in hand we cannot have anything other than a hypothesis. Iím hoping secretly that we will catch one of those. (Note: scientists did collect one of these sea cucumbers on the third day of fieldwork. See picture at left).

10. What do you think is the benefit of this work to conservation in the NWHI, or to CoML, or marine science more broadly?

Coral reef ecosystems, actually any ecosystems on the planet, are incredibly complex, and I like to think in the really long term. In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where most of the short term impacts have been dealt with, we have to look at impacts that are not local in origin, such as global warming. If you look at those impacts, I think the most important thing our generation can do is just record what is around before things change. So if ever humanity becomes a little more sensible, and normalizes its impacts upon the planet we have some data of what the planet used to be like, to reconstruct. For example in Florida right now there is a push to re-establish long life pine ecosystems, and what we know about them is fragmentary and based on what people reported 100 years ago, people who had very limited resources and spent little time in the area. It is difficult to re-establish these ecosystems based on this information. Certainly what I intend to do with my life is record as much about the planet as exists today as possible so that future generations have a reference point of what the Earth looked like before it got irrevocably altered by human activities.

Holothuria sp.  Sea cucumber. Undescribed. Photo: Gustav Paulay.
Holothuria sp. Sea cucumber. Undescribed.
Photo: Gustav Paulay.
I have witnessed a lot of human impacts across the Pacific. On land these impacts are very well known, I am not going to elaborate on that. I have seen many species that are no longer extant, Iíve done work on many terrestrial systems, and animals die out, especially land snails and insects. I have seen invasive species take over whole ecosystems. In the ocean I used to be pretty complacent. In the old days we used to let communities release their sewage, or whatever, and think that there are still those remote islands that are in good shape. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are only one example, there are many others in the Pacific that are so remote that nobody lives there, so you think they are safe, and what is the big deal. Well my big eye opening was in 1998 when coral bleaching occurred across the Pacific. It did not affect Guam but it did affect Palau, and I worked in Palau before that event and went back after, and I wanted to cry, there was so much loss. We donít know if things went locally extinct or not, things have not been seen since. Staghorn corals were totally devastated. There used to be acres and acres of them, and after bleaching they suffered 100% mortality. Certain soft corals were just completely wiped out, and we saw that happen over a single season and you realize what is happening as temperatures are rising. It really scares me.



*All images and information from French Frigate Shoals are provided courtesy of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands State Marine Refuge, and NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center in accordance with permit numbers NWHIMNM-2006-015, 2006-01, 2006-017, and DLNR.NWHI06R021 and associated amendments.

Click on one of the following areas to follow the expedition.

Ship Logs

Ship Logs:
Day-by-day activities of the ship: what research is being done that day, what the weather is like, what's for dinner, etc.

Daily or semi-daily personal journal entries by the particpants in the expedition. These journals do not necessarily reflect the positions of any of the agencies connected with this project.

Interviews with expedition participants, scientists, vessel crew, educators, etc.

Highlights or special information such as interesting discoveries or related research.

Home | News | About | Expeditions | Photos | Video | Maps
Discussions | Partners | Teachers | Keiki | More Info | Search
Contact Us | Privacy Policy
This site is hosted by the
Laboratory for Interactive Learning Technologies
at the University of Hawai`i