Palmyra AtollPhoto: The Nature Conservancy

**Learn more about the 2013 Research Cruise to the Southern Line Island: ***

Central Pacific Atolls

Remote and uninhabited atolls provide one of the few remaining opportunities to study coral reef ecosystems in the relative absence of local human activities. By investigating the structure and functioning of such reefs, we move closer to developing a true baseline of reef ecology and to applying this knowledge toward conservation and restoration efforts worldwide

Palmyra Atoll and PARC

reef fish-Photo credit: Melissa Garren 2008 Palmyra Atoll - Situated nearly 1,000 miles south of the Hawaiian Islands in the central Pacific Ocean, Palmyra Atoll is a truly remote marine wilderness. Its emerald islets and turquoise lagoons teem with rare animal and plant life. Notable among these are the abundant nesting seabirds, the countless land crabs (including the massive coconut crab), and some of the last remaining stands of Pacific Pisonia forest. Having never supported a permanent human population, the atoll also provides unique insights into the structure of an essentially pristine coral reef. The coral gardens, shallow reef pools, and near shore waters are home to myriad reef species and essential habitat for local and migrating deep-water fish, dolphins, whales and sharks from both the eastern and western Pacific. Palmyra offers an extraordinary opportunity for scientific studies aimed at protecting both Palmyra and other island ecosystems in the Pacific and around the world.

The Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium (PARC),
is a group of nine institutions that undertakes collaborative research to understand terrestrial, marine, and climate systems of Palmyra Atoll and the central Pacific to advance the conservation of island and coastal systems ( Current members of the research consortium are Scripps Institution of Oceanography, American Museum of Natural History, California Academy of Sciences, Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy, University of California at Santa Barbara, University of Hawaii, U.S. Geological Survey, and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The consortium works in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the atoll as part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (

Reef Shark Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos Photo by Jim Maragos, Line Islands Expedition 2005

PARC has grouped its studies under three overarching themes: 1) Biodiversity and Ecology; 2) Terrestrial/Marine Interface; and 3) Marine Biology, Climate Change, and Biogeochemical Structure. This research will help answer many questions about the ability of tropical terrestrial and marine environments to survive into the future. Developing conservation strategies based on the most integrative and contemporary scientific knowledge represents a major innovation in understanding how resources can be managed in the context of global climate change.

Photo Credit: Melissa Garren - Palmyra 2008

Research underway - Researchers and students from CMBC and other groups at SIO have learned tremendous amounts about oceanography, marine biology, and conservation from work conducted on Palmyra. Based on information stored within Palmyra s corals, the history of El Niño climate fluctuations during the past centuries have been described as never before. Using remote audio recorders, the behaviors and habits of the island s dolphin populations are being revealed. And with the help of a growing number of senior and junior colleagues, the importance of sharks and other top predators to the ecology of coral reefs is being illuminated in unprecedented detail. The setting of Palmyra, both in terms of oceanography and remoteness from human populations, provides a rare opportunity to combine the many strengths of CMBC and our colleagues in one coordinated research effort.

Contact: Stuart Sandin

Line Islands Expeditions

Line Islands Expedition 2005 - There are almost no pristine/nearly pristine coral reefs in the world. Former reefs full of sharks, large fishes, sea turtles, and healthy corals are all but gone. Impacts such as chronic over-fishing, pollution, climate change, and disease have deteriorated reefs. One of the major problems for the conservation of coral reefs is that we seldom have ecological baselines against which to compare present reefs. Such quantitative baselines can reveal the ecological characteristics that have been lost and potentially can guide us toward strategies to restore degraded reefs. To supply the ecological baseline, we conducted a thorough study of the ecosystems of two of the most pristine coral reefs remaining, those surrounding Palmyra atoll and Kingman reef in the Line Islands.

Photo credit:  Melissa Garren - Palmyra Atoll 2008

With a diverse team of reef ecologists, we have described the diversity and structure of the reef communities, sampling all major taxonomic groups, including the microbes, algae, corals, other invertebrates, and fish. In order to quantify the effects of human disturbance on coral reef ecosystems, we conducted comparable surveys on two inhabited islands of the Line Islands archipelago, Tabuaeran and Kiritimati in the Republic of Kiribati. This survey has offered a unique view into the groups of organisms that are lost, the species interactions that are altered, and the ecological dynamics that are changed as humans disturb a reef.

See the two-part story on the expedition published by Explorations, the e-magazine of Scripps Institution of Oceanography:

Kingman Reef Expedition 2007 - Kingman reef lies at the northern extreme of the Line Islands and is perhaps the least touched of the Coral and Clams - Kingman archipelago. Because of its remote location, lack of habitable land, and protection by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Kingman serves as a relic of coral reefs of the past. In an ongoing effort to learn from these gems of the Pacific , we organized a broad team of reef experts to catalogue the composition and distribution of organisms across the reef. We sampled across the same taxonomic breadth as the Line Island Expedition of 2005, but included many more habitats within the atoll. Our description provides a detailed accounting of the composition of the forereef, back reef, lagoon, and reef pools of Kingman.

Although Kingman is largely unspoiled by local human activities, the global impacts of climate change reach even such a remote atoll. Our efforts on Kingman and across the Line Islands archipelago serve to document how such global threats affect these seemingly pristine atolls, and importantly to understand how preservation of local food web structure interacts with climate change, perhaps buffering the reefs from some of the worst effects of global warming and ocean acidification.

Southern Line Islands Expedition 2009 - Scientists from CMBC joined with the National Geographic Society (NGS) to explore the uninhabited southern Line Islands. These five islands and atolls are all part of the Republic of Kiribati and represent some of the few remaining examples of intact and undisturbed coral reef ecosystems. The goal of this expedition was to raise awareness of the presence and value of these untouched island ecosystems, both through outreach and science. More information can be found on the NGS website.

Northern Line Islands Expedition 2010 - In fall 2010, we will be returning to the northern Line Islands to learn more from this extraordinary system of islands. Building off of the information that we have learned during our previous visits, we will be exploring the ecological dynamics that underlie these coral reef ecosystems. Bringing together a team of fish biologists, coral and algal experts, and microbiologists, we will investigate how food cycles through the reef ecosystem and explore changes in these patterns caused by fishing and other human activities. Academic papers about the islands include:

  • Sandin, SA, SM Walsh, JBC Jackson (2010) Prey release, trophic cascades, and phase shifts in tropical nearshore marine ecosystems. In J. Terborgh and J.A. Estes (eds) Trophic Cascades: Predators, Prey, and the Changing Dynamics of Nature, Island Press, pp. 71-90.

  • Charles, C and SA Sandin (2009) Line Islands. In R.G. Gillespie and D.A. Clague (eds) The Encyclopedia of Islands, University of California Press, pp. 553-558.

  • Barrot, K, J Smith, E Dinsdale, M Hatay, SA Sandin, F Rohwer (2009) Hyperspectral and physiological analyses of coral-algal interactions. PLoS ONE 4(11): e8043.

  • DeMartini, EE, AM Friedlander, SA Sandin, E Sala (2008) Differences in fish-assemblage structure between fished and unfished atolls in the northern Line Islands, central Pacific. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 365: 199-215.

  • Sandin, SA, JE Smith, EE DeMartini, EA Dinsdale, SD Donner, AM Friedlander, T Konotchick, M Malay, JE Maragos, D Obura, O Pantos, G Paulay, M Richie, F Rohwer, RE Schroeder, S Walsh, JBC Jackson, N Knowlton, E Sala (2008) Baselines and degradation of coral reefs in the northern Line Islands. PLoS ONE 3(2): e1548.

  • Dinsdale, EA, O Pantos, S Smriga, RA Edwards, F Angly, D Hall, E Brown, M Haynes, L Krause, E Sala, SA Sandin, R Vega Thurber, BL Willis, F Azam, N Knowlton, F Rohwer (2008) Microbial ecology of four coral atolls in the northern Line Islands. PLoS ONE 3(2): e1584.

UCSD News provides many more photos and videos (English and Spanish) on this research.