Field Notes: A Conversation with Dr. Danielle Burnett at Palmyra Atoll

Multi-colored corals and a giant clam in bright blue, shallow water at Palmyra Atoll.

This note is part of our ongoing series bringing you a behind the scenes look at the life and the science of working in remote field camps and National Wildlife Refuges across the Pacific Islands. During National Wildlife Refuge Week, October 11–17, 2020, we sat down with Dr. Danielle L. Burnett to learn more about her work at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

By Lauren Pederson, Kupu Americorps Member

Please briefly describe your position with USFWS and the National Wildlife Refuge where you work.

I am a Biological Science Technician for Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, specializing in marine work. Palmyra is an atoll located 1000 miles almost due south of Hawaii, and an unincorporated United States territory. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the atoll in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy, who owns and runs a research station on one of the islands within the atoll. The main way on and off the atoll is via small plane that lands on a coral rubble landing strip built in WWII. So far, I have averaged about five months a year on Palmyra Atoll, and I spend the rest of the year supporting the work being done on Palmyra Atoll from Honolulu.

Dr. Danielle L. Burnett. Photo credit: Holly Richards/USFWS

What are the main projects currently going on at Palmyra Atoll NWR?

Right now the big one is a coconut control project, also known as the Rainforest Realignment Project. I know it sounds weird, but [before it was a Refuge] there have been multiple failed attempts at converting Palmyra Atoll into a copra [the dried meat or kernel of the coconut — from which oil can be extracted] plantation, so large swaths of native forest were cut down around the atoll and coconut monocultures were planted. Rats were eradicated a few years back, and it turns out that the rats, while very bad news for nesting sea birds and the many species of land crabs we have, were playing a role in controlling the coconuts. Without them present to eat back the sprouts, the coconuts have absolutely exploded. We are trying to clear most of the coconuts on the interiors of the islands and are re-planting cleared areas with native atoll forest community species. Many of those species (such as Pisonia grandis) are not doing well globally, so we want to protect them for their own sake. But we also want to replace the coconut monocultures with native forest to provide better nesting habitat for seabirds!

*Note: Seabirds rely on low-lying atolls like Palmyra Atoll as a safe place to rest and raise their young. The only seabird nesting area available within 450,000 square miles of ocean, the Refuge is home to the world’s second largest red-footed booby colony, as well as sooty terns, red- and white-tailed tropicbirds, great frigatebirds, white terns, brown noddies, and masked and brown boobies.

Another big project we have going is that I recently acquired a couple of remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs. The learning curve has been challenging for these, but we are hoping to set up some long term monitoring of Crown of Thorns starfish (COTs) in the refuge waters. We have evidence that we may be currently experiencing a COTs outbreak, so want to closely monitor the situation at the very least.

When rats were eradicated from Palmyra Atoll, the population of land crab exploded — including the coconut crab. The king of the arthropods can weigh in at nearly nine pounds! Credit: Ian Shive/USFWS

What motivates you?

Well, when I think about when I knew I wanted to be a biologist, I remember back to when I was 10 years old and I got to go camping at Joshua Tree National Park as part of a school trip (I grew up in southern California, not too far away). I’ll never forget listening to the Park Ranger teach us all about the animals and plants, and feeling like he saw this entire secret, second world right here within our world. And I just really wanted to know about that world too. My dad, while not formally educated, was also a good naturalist in his own right. So I always had this deep urge to understand the secret, living world that people who had this knowledge of the natural world saw. I can barely remember a time before I knew I wanted to be a biologist. That urge to understand all the life around me has never really gone away. Getting to know the life of Palmyra has just been a real delight, as it’s a very different ecosystem than I had worked in previously. So I guess I’m pretty motivated by just wanting to understand the secrets of the natural world.

A pod of melon headed whales and Dr. Burnett at Palmyra Atoll. Credit: Dana White

Please share a favorite/memorable experience you’ve had at your Refuge.

About a year ago, I had a really amazing interaction with our resident pod of melon headed whales. They just absolutely surrounded us. As soon as my head hit the water I was just overwhelmed. They were all talking to each other and it was just a cacophony of sound. Melon headed whales are actually in the oceanic dolphin family, so most of their calls were higher pitched like a dolphin, but there were so many and they were so close that I could feel the vibrations of their calls in my chest. There was a small group of three females and a baby that were really curious about me, and they kept pinging me with their calls — I could tell they were trying to figure out what this strange creature was. Who even knows what sorts of information they can get from that- I bet they basically gave me an x-ray with that call!

Why is the work being done at Palmyra Atoll NWR important?

At Palmyra Atoll we have one of the most intact reef ecosystems in the world. I worry a lot as a conservation biologist about shifting baseline syndrome- as more and more reef is degraded or lost, as the size and composition of fish assemblages shrinks and changes, etc., I worry about people not even understanding what we’ve lost. The reefs of Palmyra are great reminders of what an intact reef is supposed to look like, and how a reef with its trophic assemblages still intact is supposed to function. That is priceless. I’m a marine person so I’m obviously biased to the importance of the marine work, but I also know that the terrestrial work being done is very important. Atoll ecosystems are not doing so great in many parts of the Pacific, so the [successful] work we do here can be applied elsewhere.

Nesting seabirds nutrient rich guano enhances coral reef growth, resulting in healthier reefs with more stable fish populations. Excellent conditions for a predator dominated ecosystem like Palmyra Atoll. Black tip reef sharks swimming in coral gardens at Palmyra Atoll photo credit: Kydd Pollock/The Nature Conservancy. White tern parent and chick on a tree branch photo credit: Gary Andrews/The Nature Conservancy.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information, connect with us through any of these social media channels at https://www.facebook.com/PacificIslandsFWS, www.flickr.com/photos/usfwspacific/, or www.twitter.com/USFWSPacific.

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