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The R/V Alpha Helix Symbios Expedition: A retrospective analysis of a milestone in coral reef research 11th International Coral Reef Symposium July 7-11 2008 Ft. Lauderdale, Florida Chris D’Elia Abbie Rae Harris Introduction

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The R/V Alpha Helix Symbios Expedition: A retrospective analysis of a milestone in coral reef research

11th International Coral Reef Symposium

July 7-11 2008

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

Chris D’Elia

Abbie Rae Harris



  • The Symbios Expedition: In the spring of 1971, a team of more than 20 marine scientists gathered at Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands to conduct the most comprehensive study of coral reef undertaken until that time.
  • This project aims to paint a picture of the Symbios Expedition from its conception and execution through how its scientific results influence our present understanding of coral reefs.
the expedition
The Expedition
  • Two month long study of the productivity and flux of chemical elements in some coral reef communities
  • “Flow respirometry” – same location as famous Odum & Odum 1955 study
  • R/V Alpha Helix served as a floating laboratory and sleeping quarters
  • 23-member science party lead by Dr. Robert Johannes and Dr. Larry Pomeroy
  • Resulted in more than 25 primary publications, including several whose findings were groundbreaking

R/V Alpha Helix at Enewetak, 1971

Photo: Susan Betzer

the enewetak study site
The Enewetak Study Site

A windward atoll coral reef where trade-wind-driven waves cause unidirectional water flow across the reef to allow upstream-downstream sampling

project significance
Project Significance
  • Looks at historical impact of a major marine science expedition
  • Conducts a retrospective analysis of a publicly funded project
  • Documentation of science history
  • Explores the sociology of scientific expedition
    • Study in leadership in science
research activities
Research Activities
  • Create archive of reference materials
    • Including historical documentation (photos, letters, etc)
  • Conduct audio and video interviews
  • Conduct citation analysis of Symbios publications
    • Focuses on refereed publications
citation analysis
Citation Analysis
  • Citation counts tell us how many citations a publication has received, and when.
  • Citation networks tell us who is citing whom, and how often.
  • We have used citation counts and network visualization tools such as Citespace II to assess quantitatively the impact that this expedition has had on science.

Right: An excerpt from Knutson et al.’s 1972 paper on seasonal growth bands in corals.


Symbios Publications (Refereed Only)

  • Knutson, D. W., R.W. Buddemeier, & S. V. Smith. 1972. Coral Chronometers - Seasonal Growth Bands in Reef Corals. Science 177:270.
  • Wiebe, W.J., R.E. Johannes, & K.L. Webb. 1975. Nitrogen-Fixation in a Coral-Reef Community. Science 188:257-259.
  • Johannes, R.E. & 22 co-authors. 1972. Metabolism of Some Coral Reef Communities - Team Study of Nutrient and Energy Flux at Eniwetok. BioScience 22:541.
  • Smith, S.V. 1973. Carbon-Dioxide Dynamics - Record of Organic Carbon Production, Respiration and Calcification in Eniwetok Reef Flat Community. Limnol. Oceanogr. 18:106-120.
  • Webb, K.L., et al. 1975. Enewetak (Eniwetok) Atoll - Aspects of Nitrogen Cycle on a Coral-Reef. Limnol. Oceanogr. 20:198-210.
  • Pilson, M.E.Q. & S.B. Betzer. 1973. Phosphorus Flux across a Coral Reef. Ecology, 1973. 54:581-588.
  • D'Elia, C.F. 1977. Uptake and Release of Dissolved Phosphorus by Reef Corals. Limnol. Oceanogr., 22:301-315.
  • Smith, S.V. & J.A. Marsh. 1973. Organic Carbon Production on Windward Reef Flat of Eniwetok-Atoll. Limnol. Oceanogr. 18:953-961.

Citespace II Network

Topic search terms: coral* and nitrogen

historical documentation
Historical Documentation
  • Approximately 1625 photographs
  • Reference materials such as ship logs, maps, research notes, and publications
  • 11 audio and video interviews with Symbios participants

Left: S.V. Smith, R.E. Johannes, and M.E.Q. Pilson, Enewetak, 1971

Photo: Susan Betzer

Right: Experimental setup, Enewetak, 1971

Photo: Susan Betzer


Left: S.V. Smith, R.E. Johannes, N. Marshall, and M.E.Q. Pilson, Enewetak, 1971

Photo: Susan Betzer

Right: J.L. Meyer, Enewetak, 1971

Photo: Susan Betzer


Above: J. Morgan Wells, Enewetak, 1971

Photo: Susan Betzer

Top Right: S. Betzer, Enewetak, 1971

Photo: M.E.Q. Pilson

Bottom Right: S.V. Smith, Enewetak, 1971

Photo: M.E.Q. Pilson


Above: R.E. Johannes, Enewetak, 1971

Photo: M.E.Q. Pilson

Top right: Onshore labs and sleeping quarters

Photo: Susan Betzer

Bottom Right: Dock at Enewetak, 1971

Photo: Susan Betzer


To me, this expedition exemplifies what oceanography is all about, because it is a field that crosses disciplines. And people who are successful are people who work with others.

  • Dr. Susan Betzer, 2004 (top left)
  • Next to Gene Odum, Bob Johannes was the biggest idea man I’ve run into.
  • Dr. Kenneth Webb, 2004 (bottom left)
  • There was a lot from that expedition that really flowed across the board in terms of coral reef biology and chemistry. It was a landmark expedition in that sense.
  • - Dr. William J. Wiebe, 2004
  • I think what we did was provide the conceptual mechanism to link the essential nutrient cycles.
  • - Dr. Stephen V. Smith, 2006

Video & Audio Interviews

major accomplishments

In the Words of Symbios Participants

Major Accomplishments
  • Helfrich: “[Understanding] the nutrient dynamics of the exchange across the windward reef, which became the primary focus of the expedition.”
  • Pomeroy: “… the supposedly barren rock of the coral reef was actually coated [with] algae [that had an] extremely important effect even though you couldn’t see them.”
  • Pilson: “…the startling discovery of the increase of N downstream across the reef [and the realization this came from N fixation].”

Summary: Citation Analysis Showed

  • High citation rates: 738 total citation counts for 8 refereed publications
  • Persistence: Mean of 16 citations per refereed publications since 2000
  • Impact: Citespace II networks created using relevant search terms (i.e., coral* and nitrogen) indicate Symbios publications as turning points in the literature
  • Significant role of serendipity: Coral Chronometers, Knutson, Buddemeier, and Smith’s 1972 paper was the most highly cited – not a “core” project
summary participant interviews indicated
Summary: Participant Interviews Indicated
  • N cycle and reef system function were among the most important scientific foci.
  • The interdisciplinary, team approach to research was a major reason for the expedition’s success.
  • The length of the expedition allowed researchers to modify/repeat field experiments, a major reason for success.
  • The excellent logistical support provided by several agencies and individuals such as Phil Helfrich were key to expedition’s success.
  • Symbios was a turning point in the careers of those interviewed, all of whom went on to successful careers.
  • The leadership of the late Dr. Robert E. Johannes to foster the expedition’s productivity, inspire junior scientists and graduate students, and involve women.
reasons for symbios success
Reasons for Symbios’ Success
  • Strong conceptual basis and excellent science
  • Excellent leadership and follow-up after expedition ended
  • Wonderful site selected, with existing facilities
  • Remarkable logistical support, e.g. R/V Alpha Helix
  • Well financed by NSF/SIO, AEC and others
  • Flexible science plan, yet good fidelity to original major goals
  • Collaborative, “hang loose” scientific party
  • National Science Foundation
    • Dr. Mike Reeve
  • Dr. C. Chen at Drexler University
  • Symbios participants and others who have contributed thoughts, letters, and photographs: Dr. Lawrence R. Pomeroy, Dr. William J. Wiebe, Dr. Michael E.Q. Pilson, Dr. Susan B. Betzer, Dr. Philip Helfrich, Dr. Stephen V. Smith, Dr. Judy L. Meyer, Dr. Kenneth L. Webb, Dr. Ariel A. Roth, Dr. James A. Marsh Jr., and Dr. John C. Ogden.