Preserving Palmyra Atoll

In 1802, the American ship Palmyra happened upon a small, uncharted island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Today, this mote on the high seas is famous for its fauna and serves as a living laboratory for reef ecologists.

Palmyra Atoll, a one-square-mile oasis halfway between San Francisco and Sydney, Australia, is one of the last intact coral ecosystems on Earth. This runt of an island is a giant in biodiversity, boasting three times as many coral species than Hawaii and the Caribbean as well as endangered sea turtles, rare seabirds, and the Earth's largest known terrestrial invertebrate, the giant coconut crab. The Academy, along with a host of other organizations, hopes the atoll will one day serve as a model to study pristine reefs and their roles in ocean ecology.

Academy Provost and sea slug expert Terry Gosliner recently visited Palmyra to survey the animal and plant life and explore the possibility of establishing a research station on the atoll. It would be the first station dedicated to studying coral island ecology in the central Pacific.

Up until recently, this prospect was inconceivable. Palmyra, which lies just north of the equator about 1,000 miles south of Honolulu, nearly became a dumpsite for nuclear waste, a fish processing plant, even a casino. However, preservation prevailed when The Nature Conservancy bought the atoll in late 2000 for $37 million. In January 2001, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated more than 500,000 acres of the surrounding coral reefs as a National Wildlife Reserve.

Looking toward the outer reef edge of Palmyra.
Photo: Terry Gosliner

The reefs of Palmyra Atoll teem with tropical life. Photo: © Jeff Foott /

Left:Booby chick. Palmyra has the second-largest population of red-footed boobies in the world. Photo © Russell Sparkman /
Right: A recent visit by Academy researchers and collaborators added 16 to the local popluation of 10. Photo: Terry Gosliner.
Left: Manta ray Photo © Russell Sparkman /
Right: Chromodoris fidelis is known from the western Pacific and Palmyra but is absent from Hawaii.
Photo: Terry Gosliner.