Biology Department News

UH Hilo launches online map of campus gardens

Thursday, April 22, 2021, 7:07pm by

The website invites all members of the campus community “to participate in garden projects so they might learn about native plants, history, and the host culture, while getting their hands in the dirt, finding new ways to spend time in nature.”

By Susan Enright

Collage of students in gardens. Map to left.
Featured on the new Gardens of UH Hilo website is the Life Sciences Native Forest Māla, found in the quad outside the Life Sciences Buildings. Graduate students in the tropical conservation and environmental science program, along with members of the Biology Club tend the gardens.

The University of Hawai‘i at Hilo has launched an online map of the many gardens on campus. The Gardens at UH Hilo website gives visitors a bird’s eye view of the campus with a marker on each of the gardens. Click on the marker and a photo and description pops up.

There are many instructional gardens across UH Hilo’s campus, some for cultural awareness, and others for hands-on agricultural experience. The website invites all members of the campus community “to participate in campus improvement and garden projects so they might learn about native plants, history, and the host culture, while getting their hands in the dirt and finding new ways to spend time in nature.”

UH Hilo Botanical Garden

Don Hemmes stands in the gardens.
Emeritus Professor of Biology Don Hemmes in the UH Hilo Botanical Gardens.

First up on the list is the UH Hilo Botanical Gardens created some thirty years ago by Emeritus Professor Don Hemmes, a retired biologist who still maintains the lush displays he founded.

“I started around 1990, almost 30 years ago,” he says. “When I first came here, it was to teach botany. I was teaching the life cycle of a pine tree, and one of the students in my class raised her hand and said, ‘What’s a pine tree?’ She had never seen one, so I planted the first pine trees over here, and it just got out of control.”

The botanical gardens were carved out of a once overgrown gulch alongside the UH Hilo residence halls. Paths were built through the conifer trees for the students who had never seen a live pine. Planted nearby are close to a hundred species of cycads from Africa, China, North and Central America and Australia.  “They look like palms, with names like sago or king palm, but they are in no way related to palms,” says Hemmes.

Individuals or groups are invited to visit the garden. For more information, contact Prof. Hemmes.

Other gardens on campus 

Also featured is the Life Sciences Native Forest Māla, located in the quad outside the Life Sciences Buildings. Graduate students in the tropical conservation and environmental science program, along with members of the Biology Club plant and tend the gardens.

The Kīpuka Mala is located at the Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center. Work Days are held twice monthly to start new projects in the native gardens.

Outside the Edwin H. Mookini Library, gardens are planted as part of the university’s agricultural curriculum to teach about sustainable agriculture.

Take the tour!

More about these gardens and others can be found on the Gardens of UH Hilo website.


Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

UH Hilo whale researcher Adam Pack guides PBS film crew documenting sharks in Hawai‘i

Wednesday, April 21, 2021, 7:14pm by

By Susan Enright

Adam Pack
Adam Pack

In the spring of 2020, prior to the pandemic leading to a pause in vessel operations throughout the Hawaiian Islands, Professor Adam Pack, a marine mammal scientist at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, was out in waters off Maui for several humpback whale research projects. Joining Pack, who is the director of the Marine Mammal Laboratory, were various colleagues as well as his graduate students from the UH Hilo tropical conservation biology and environmental science program and from UH Mānoa.

During one of these periods, the researchers were accompanied by a film crew from PBS’s Nature who were creating the film “Sharks of Hawaii.” Their idea—beyond filming Hawai‘i’s many sharks—was to also film the whales and Pack’s work and discuss interactions between tiger sharks and humpback whales in their breeding grounds.

Pack explains that over his 25 years studying humpback whales in Hawaiian waters, “typically when we have seen tiger sharks in the presence of the humpbacks it is when a whale is already visibly ill and/or injured. That said, some calves appear to have injuries consistent with predation from sharks, usually cookie cutter sharks. This may explain in part why mothers sequester themselves with their newborns into shallow water, to avoid both natural predators as well as harassment from male humpbacks prospecting for mating opportunities.”

The 12-minute clip on the “Making of Sharks in Hawaii” shows excellent detail on the way Pack gathers whale data.

“The film clip is all footage gathered during our research excursion,” says Pack. “It shows my efforts to gather data on whale size and behavior using underwater videogrammetry, whale identification through surface photography, and whale hormone levels and health measures using biopsy sampling.”

Also in the clip are Pack’s colleagues from the Pacific Whale Foundation, Jens Currie and Stephanie Stack, doing the drone work for obtaining data on body condition.

All of the work occurs under National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration federal permits.


Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

UH Hilo’s Ostertag elected a 2021 Fellow of the Ecological Society of America

Thursday, March 25, 2021, 9:02pm by

Photo of Becky Ostertag

Dr. Rebecca Ostertag, who is also associate chair of the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science (TCBES) M.S. program,  has been elected a 2021 Fellow of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) for her “outstanding intellectual leadership in the areas of tropical forest ecology and conservation and a deep commitment to mentoring and enhancing diversity in the next generation of ecologists,” noted the ESA March 25, 2021. Fellows are elected for life.

Ostertag, who has taught at UH Hilo since August 2001, teaches courses related to the environment, including ecology and conservation, biostatistics, and field methods. Her area of specialization is in tropical forest ecology, examining questions relating to biological invasions, nutrient cycling, forest dynamics, climate, and restoration. Ostertag’s research carries a strong field component and involves integration of natural history, commesa logounity structure, and ecosystem dynamics.

“Dr. Ostertag exemplifies the role of teacher-scholar, engaging and mentoring students in ecology through coursework, mentorship, and grant-funded opportunities while conducting a breadth of disciplinary research,” said Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Kris Roney. “Her election by the ESA is testament to the reach of her leadership in all of these areas. She is an absolutely phenomenal colleague and professor, and this honor is well earned.”

Ostertag and the other Fellows will be formally recognized during an awards ceremony at ESA’s virtual Annual Meeting in August.

ESA established its Fellows program in 2012 with the goal of honoring its members and supporting their competitiveness and advancement to leadership positions in the Society, at their institutions, and in society.

Collaborative humpback whale study continues in Hawaiian waters

Friday, February 12, 2021, 7:00pm by

Currently, the research team is studying the humpback whales now in waters off Maui. During summers, the team examines the same individual whales in feeding grounds off Southeast Alaska.

By Susan Enright

Humpback whales are back in Hawaiian waters after their fall migration from along the Northern Pacific rim, and a new long-term research project into their condition and health continued last month in waters off Maui. During summers, the research team examines the same individual whales in feeding grounds off Southeast Alaska.

Adam Pack with snorkel and mask.
Adam Pack. Archive photo.

The Marine Mammal Laboratory at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, founded by Adam Pack, who holds a joint appointment in the departments of psychology and biology, last month continued its collaborative research on humpback whale health with researchers from Hawai‘i and Alaska. On the team with Pack are Lars Bejder and Martin van Aswegen of the Marine Mammal Research Program at UH Mānoa, Jens Currie and Stephanie Stack of the Pacific Whale Foundation, Andy Szabo of Alaska Whale Foundation, Shannon Atkinson of University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and Kristi West of Hawai‘i Pacific University.

“Our goal is to learn about the physical and reproductive health of the Hawai‘i distinct population segment of North Pacific Humpback Whales by measuring how whale body condition, fertility levels, and indicators of stress change while calves are nursing and other whales are fasting over the course of a breeding season,” says Pack.

The team also examines how these same parameters compare with those from the same whales in the feeding grounds off Southeast Alaska as measured by van Aswegen, Bejder, and Szabo.

Through the long-term continuous monitoring of the whales, threats or stressors to the population are identified to provide science-based recommendations on mitigation strategies and contribute to adaptive management.

The Pacific Whale Foundation explains that the Hawai‘i Distinct Population Segment of humpback whales undertake one of the longest migrations of any animal, travelling between cooler, productive foraging grounds in the waters around Russia, Alaska, and western Canada to the warmer, tropical breeding grounds in Hawai‘i. Recent observations in Hawai‘i and Southeast Alaska have revealed declines in sighting rates of humpback whales, with a 50-75 percent decrease reported between 2013 and 2018. Despite the widespread popularity of humpback whales, the species continues to face several threats relating to human activities and ecosystem health, which is magnified by their preferred use of coastal habitats.

Continuous long-term monitoring is an effective research method to determine potential population changes and better predict and monitor the impacts of various stressors. By monitoring trends in the numbers of whales, their distribution, health and population status, the researchers can better inform management practices. Currently, in the leeward waters off Maui, the team is collecting a variety of data to gain a broad understanding of both individuals and the population at large using photo identification, tissue samples, and body condition metrics captured through drone imagery.

Four researchers on boat.
Four members of the humpback whale research team from left, Martin van Aswegen of the Marine Mammal Research Program out of UH Mānoa (with drone), Stephanie Stack of the Pacific Whale Foundation (holding recording tablet), Jens Currie of the Pacific Whale Foundation (at the helm), and Adam Pack of the UH Hilo Marine Mammal Laboratory (holding the cross-bow from which biopsy’s are obtained and a digital camera equipped with a 400 mm zoom lens. Waters off Maui, Jan. 6, 2021. Courtesy photo.

“The work involves a true team effort and incredible coordination, especially amidst the pandemic,” says Pack. In order to accomplish the work safely this year, neighbor island team members receive a negative PCR [COVID-19] test prior to Maui, while those living on Maui are also tested. The team is being kept small with no volunteers, and everyone wears masks while on the boat and out in public. The team also forms tiny research team covid-protected bubbles at all field houses.

The research

Pack explains that after the team sights a whale pod and determines its composition, van Aswegen from UH Mānoa, (whose dissertation much of these data will comprise), along with Pacific Whale Foundation researchers, launch a drone that hovers over each whale when it surfaces to measure its body condition.

Above video, the research team uses drones that hover over each whale when it surfaces to measure its body condition. This footage was collected in 2019.

An overhead drone image of whale with overlaid measurements from nose to tail.
Image of whale with drone-based measurements. Federal Research Permits 21321 and 21476. Courtesy image.

“Simultaneously, we give the whales temporary names based on the unique shapes of their dorsal fins, allowing us to link all streams of data to a named whale, and we take tail fluke identification images of individual whales when they dive,” explains Pack. “Once the drone returns and we can recognize the individual whales by sight, I carefully extract a tiny piece of blubber and skin from each whale using an arrow with a sterile stainless-steel tip projected from a cross-bow.”

Thus far, the researchers have gathered over 250 tail fluke images, measured over 270 individual whales, and collected over 65 biopsy samples.

“The preliminary results are providing important insights into the rates of maternal energy exchange as fasting moms lose body condition while their nursing calves grow, how male and female fertility levels vary as a function of body size, social role and reproductive condition, and how we might be able to detect through tissue samples whales whose health or well-being have been compromised,” says Pack.

In March, Pack will be back in Maui waters with the team for the second half of the humpback whale breeding season to identify, measure, and obtain new samples from individuals sighted earlier in the season who have been fasting or nursing during the interim.

Pack says that in this well-orchestrated research collaboration, each team member and each piece of data plays a vital role. His primary roles in the field are in obtaining biopsy samples for steroid hormone, genetic, and health analyses, and in obtaining fluke identifications and comparing these against his lab’s catalog to determine individual life histories and minimum ages. His Marine Mammal Lab’s humpback whale archival catalog now numbers over 23,000 images of humpback whales from the Hawai‘i Distinct Population and constitutes one of the largest archives of humpbacks in the world.

Adam Pack on boat at sea, holding and looking through telephoto lens.
Adam Pack photographing whales off Maui, January 6, 2021. Courtesy photo.

The biopsy sample data are analyzed at the labs of Pack’s colleagues at University of Alaska Fairbanks and Hawai‘i Pacific University.

“Then, back in my UH Hilo Marine Mammal Lab, I take the analyzed steroid hormone data and examine how testosterone, progesterone, and stress hormones vary for individual whales in various behavioral roles, body sizes, and reproductive conditions as well as those who have had long residency periods within a season in Hawai‘i, thus losing body condition.

All research is conducted under Federal Research Permits 19655, 21321, and 21476, as well as Part 107 authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration.


Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

UH Hilo alum receives endowment to pursue doctoral degree in entomology

Thursday, February 4, 2021, 7:01pm by

Thomas Fezza in a gulch environment.
Thomas Fezza

An alumnus from the University of Hawaii at Hilo, now pursuing a doctoral degree at UH Mānoa, is a recipient of the D. Elmo Hardy Student Assistance Endowment.

In 2014, Thomas Fezza earned his master of science in conservation biology and environmental science from UH Hilo, where he studied the chemical communication of native picture-winged flies. He is now pursuing a doctoral degree in entomology in the plant and environmental protection science program at UH Mānoa with an emphasis on fruit fly pests.

“Since graduation [from UH Hilo] I have been working as a technician at the United States Department of Agriculture, working in the Daniel K. Inouye U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo, where I study invasive fruit flies,” he writes in a thank you letter to the donors of the endowment. “My research covers a wide range of duties including insect rearing and trapping, in addition to molecular work and behavioral bioassays.”

Last year he decided it was time to continue his education to better provide for his family and have a greater impact on the scientific community.

“I hope to obtain a position as a lead scientist with the USDA, where I would have the opportunity to manage a lab and develop projects with the potential to help eradicate invasive fruit fly species from agricultural fields,” he writes.

Fezza adds that the endowment has reduced his financial burden, allowing him to focus on schoolwork.

“I hope one day I will also be able to assist struggling students to reach their goals in higher education, assisting them in the same way you are helping me,” he writes.

Read the letter at the UH Foundation website.

Dr. Pat Hart and colleagues publish on the effects of helicopter noise on the behavior of birds

Sunday, January 24, 2021, 1:58am by

Photo of apapane bird

‘Apapane, Himatione sanguinea

Dr. Pat Hart and his colleagues have published in the Journal of Field

Photo of Pat Hart

Pat Hart

Ornithology on the effects of helicopter noise on the singing behavior of native and none-native birds in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Since HAVO has the second highest number of helicopter tours of any park in the US, this study helps by being the first to assess the impact of anthropogenic noise on songbirds in Hawai’i.

Read the full article, “Temporal changes in songbird vocalizations associated
with helicopter noise in Hawai’i’s protected natural areas”, in the Landscape Ecology Journal.

Deep Purple

Monday, January 11, 2021, 6:36pm by

The search for natural pigments includes an MBBE study on marine sponges

Photo of Francis Sakai-Kawada

Francis Sakai-Kawada

Cosmetics, food supplements, pharmaceuticals, and textile dyes are just a few of today’s many uses of natural pigments.

In Puhi Bay, Hilo, researchers from the Dept. of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering collected a marine sponge known to harbor microorganisms that produce bioactive pigments – and sure enough, the tissue expressed a red-purple hue.

But for PhD candidate Francis Sakai-Kawada, another focus was the ecological impact of those pigments, and the microorganisms’ role for its sponge host and marine microbial community. Both play important roles in the coral reef ecosystem by providing shelter for small marine animals and the cycling of nutrients.

Working with JABSOM and UH Hilo, Francis (who earned his PhD and is now a lecturer at Chaminade U.) identified the microbe, sequenced its genome, and conducted antibacterial and antioxidant bioassays. His results, “Characterization of Prodiginine Pathway in Marine Sponge-Associated Pseudoalteromonas sp. PPB1 in Hilo, Hawai‘i,“ are published in the latest issue of Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.

“Seaweed blooms produce antioxidants and damage sponge and coral,” he says. “If these microorganisms protect the sponge and native marine animals that house in them, they control the growth and overall spread of blooms, mitigating those harmful effects and benefiting the ecosystem.”

He adds, “I am a Hilo boy, so I am truly excited to highlight the research being done in my hometown to the broader science community. This was a big collaborative effort and I’d like to thank UH-Manoa MBBE, UH-Hilo Biology program and Tropical Conservation and Environmental Science, and Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy.”



Dr. Francis Sakai-Kawada and Dr. Jon Awaya publish on bioactive pigments in marine sponges

Friday, December 18, 2020, 6:39pm by

Dr. Francis Sakai-Kawada and Dr. Jon Awaya have recently published in the Frontiers Journal on the bioactive pigments of marine sponges in Hilo,

Photo of Jon Awaya

Jon Awaya

Hawai’i. Interest in bioactive pigments stems from their ecological role in adaptation, as well as their applications in various consumer products. The production of these bioactive pigments can be from a variety of biological sources, including simple microorganisms that may or may not be associated with a host. This study is particularly interested in the marine sponges, which have been known to harbor microorganisms that produce secondary metabolites like bioactive pigments. In this study, marine sponge tissue samples were collected from Puhi Bay off the Eastern shore of Hilo, Hawai‘i and subsequently were identified as Petrosia sp. with red pigmentation.

Photo of Francis Sakai-Kawada pouring liquid from test tube

Francis Sakai-Kawada

Read their article, “Characterization of Prodiginine Pathway in Marine Sponge-Associated Pseudoalteromonas sp. PPB1 in Hilo, Hawai‘i” in Frontiers Journal.

Dr. Jolene Sutton et al. publish on GDOs in Science

Thursday, December 17, 2020, 6:53pm by

Photo of Jolene Sutton and student researchers

Jolene Sutton in center right

Dr. Jolene Sutton and her colleagues have recently published a paper in Science on gene drive organisms. Gene drive organisms (GDOs), whose genomes have been genetically engineered to spread a desired allele through a population, have the potential to transform the way societies address a wide range of daunting public health and environmental challenges. The development, testing, and release of GDOs, however, are complex and often controversial. A key challenge is to clarify the appropriate roles of developers and others actively engaged in work with GDOs in decision-making processes, and, in particular, how to establish partnerships with relevant authorities and other stakeholders.

Read full summary in Science.

Dr. Becky Ostertag publishes paper linking plant and animal functional diversity

Tuesday, November 17, 2020, 7:11pm by

Photo of Becky Ostertag

Becky Ostertag

In December 2020, Dr. Becky Ostertag et al. published a study conducted in a Hawaiian lowland wet forest that tested the effect of plant restoration on animal taxonomy and functional diversity. This study provides more insight on the restoration of Hawaiian lowland tropical forests. Below is the abstract to read more on their research:

Linking plant and animal functional diversity with an experimental community restoration in a Hawaiian lowland wet forest

A plot in the Liko Nā Pilina experiment after initial planting (left) and after 3.5 years of growth (right). In the background are existing canopy trees and in the foreground are outplants. The rocky, volcanic substrate can be seen.

Figure 1. A plot in the Liko Nā Pilina experiment after initial planting (left) and after 3.5 years of growth (right). In the background are existing canopy trees and in the foreground are outplants. The rocky, volcanic substrate can be seen.