The Palolo Worm as a Cornerstone of Pacific Ecological Time-Reckoning

  • Neal Kelso Independent scholar
  • Gregory M. Plunkett Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY, USA
  • Presley Dovo Vanuatu Department of Forests, Port Vila, Vanuatu
  • Dominik Ramík Independent scholar, Lowanatom, Tanna
  • Charlie B. Paul Vusqal Charlie B. Paul Vusqal, Vetimbosa, Vanua Lava, Vanuatu
  • K. David Harrison VinUniversity, Hanoi, Vietnam
  • Michael J. Balick Institute of Economic Botany, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY, USA
Keywords: Palolo worm, Vanuatu, Time-reckoning, Ecological calendars


Indigenous knowledge systems that uniquely encode environmental knowledge are vanishing globally in tandem with environmental changes and globalization. In this paper we explore knowledge and uses of the palolo polychaete worms (Palola spp.) in time-reckoning, as documented in the anthropological literature on Polynesia and Melanesia. We then introduce preliminary findings from three contemporary cultures, the Raga-, Vureas-, and Netwar-speaking peoples of Vanuatu. Use of the palolo worm as an element in traditional time-reckoning is well-attested in both historical and contemporary literature, and our original research reinforces the notion that it is still a crucial part of ni-Vanuatu ecological calendars. Within the cultures discussed, the annual appearance of the palolo worm is an important temporal event within very complex systems that incorporate plants, animals, agriculture, celestial bodies, the ocean, and human health for the purposes of organizing human activities. These systems, and the place of the palolo worm within them, must be given proper attention in ongoing efforts towards environmental conservation and the documentation and revitalization of traditional knowledge.

Author Biographies

Neal Kelso, Independent scholar

Neal Kelso is a linguistic anthropologist with interests in endangered languages and associated knowledge systems, particularly environmental knowledge and ecological time-reckoning.

Gregory M. Plunkett, Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY, USA

Gregory M. Plunkett is a botanist specializing in molecular systematics, Pacific floristics and biogeography, and the systematics of Apiaceae and Araliaceae.

Presley Dovo, Vanuatu Department of Forests, Port Vila, Vanuatu

Presley Dovo is a native of northern Pentecost Island, Vanuatu, and the Senior Officer for Botany and Conservation with the Vanuatu Department of Forests.

Dominik Ramík, Independent scholar, Lowanatom, Tanna

Dominik M. Ramík is a secondary school teacher on Tanna island, Vanuatu and a naturalist specializing in ornithology and in local languages and culture.

Charlie B. Paul Vusqal, Charlie B. Paul Vusqal, Vetimbosa, Vanua Lava, Vanuatu

Charlie Bride Paul is a member of the Vetimbosa and Wasaga communities in Vanua Lava, Vanuatu, and a student at the Vanuatu Agricultural College. 

K. David Harrison, VinUniversity, Hanoi, Vietnam

K. David Harrison is an environmental linguist and anthropologist with interests in language endangerment and revitalization, traditional knowledge documentation, and digital lexicography.

Michael J. Balick, Institute of Economic Botany, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY, USA

Michael J. Balick is an ethnobotanist with interests in floristics and conservation of tropical habitats as well as edible, toxic and medicinal plants.


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Figure 2 Erythrina fusca, one of two species of Erythrina (rara in the Mota and Raga languages), native to Vanuatu. This species has (A, B) orange to (C) bright red flowers.
How to Cite
Kelso, N., Plunkett, G., Dovo, P., Ramík, D., Paul Vusqal, C., Harrison, D., & Balick, M. (2023). The Palolo Worm as a Cornerstone of Pacific Ecological Time-Reckoning. Ethnobiology Letters, 14(1), 24-35.
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