Biology Department News

Biologist Narrissa Spies, UH Hilo alumna, inspires artwork for national STEM conference

Tuesday, October 8, 2019, 10:58pm by

The piece, by Laurie Sumiye, depicts Haumea, Hawaiian Earth Mother and Creation Goddess (ancestor to all indigenous Hawaiians) and is modeled after Native Hawaiian scientist and UH Hilo alumna Narrissa Spies.

By Susan Enright

Narrissa Spies, an alumna from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, is the inspiration behind artwork created by Laurie Sumiya for the upcoming 2019 SACNAS National Diversity in STEM Conference. The conference is a three-day event to be held Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, 2019, in Honolulu.

SACNAS stands for the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, an organization that supports and promotes Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in attaining advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

SACNAS

@sacnas

Meet the muse for the artwork: SACNISTA Narrissa Spies!✨Aside from seeing her depicted in this year’s art, Narrissa is also a graduate student in @UHNews.

🔗 Learn more about Narrissa and her research on coral reefs >> https://www.hawaii.edu/news/2018/01/23/a-role-model-who-revels-in-research/ 

Images of Narrissa smiling in the lab, looking in microscope. Background image of 2019 SACNAS artwork featuring Narrissa holding a tree.
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Spies grew up in Hilo and Kawaihae, where her childhood aspiration was to become a medical researcher. She began her studies at Hawai‘i Community College, then graduated from UH Hilo with bachelor of arts degrees in molecular biology and anthropology and a master degree in tropical conservation biology and environmental science. She received her doctor of philosophy in zoology from UH Mānoa. She is now a fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

About the Artwork
“‘Ano Lani; ‘Ano-Honua” by Laurie Sumiye.

Artwork of Narrissa with volcano in background, she has her hands in the ocean cradling fish, and has a tree image on her front.The piece, titled after a traditional Hawaiian proverb meaning “A heavenly nature; an earthly nature” depicts Haumea, Hawaiian Earth Mother and Creation Goddess (ancestor to all indigenous Hawaiians) and modeled after Native Hawaiian scientist and SACNAS member Narrissa Spies. In her hands, she carries the Makalai tree, a tree of life. Behind Haumea is an active volcano (representing creation), verdant green mountains, and the Scorpio and Pleiades constellations (representing the ancestors). Below her, swims a red fish (representing nourishment), an iwa bird (representing travel and clear direction), and colorful hibiscus flowers (representing the diversity and beauty of Hawaiian people and native flora). As a whole, the artwork depicts the creation story — a tale of who we are and how we got here.

The upcoming conference is the largest multidisciplinary and multicultural STEM diversity event in the country. The three-day event focuses on empowering participants for their academic and professional STEM paths. Participants are inspired by scientific research and professional development sessions, motivational keynote speakers, an expo hall, and multicultural celebrations. “At 2019 SACNAS, you can shape your own STEM story inspired by your ancestors, mentors, and peers—nourished by diversity and fueled by passion for discovery,” notes the website about the event.

To learn more about Spies and her research while at UH, see UH Hilo alumna Narrissa Spies: A role model who revels in research (UH Hilo Stories, Jan. 24, 2018).

 

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.

A quieter forest: UH Hilo biologists document loss of bird song in Hawaiian honeycreepers on Kaua‘i

Tuesday, September 17, 2019, 7:14pm by

The researchers did the study on Kaua‘i because it is in crisis mode: bird populations are crashing due to disease and habitat loss, and with that, the species are losing their songs. 

By Leah Sherwood.

Small green bird on lehua tree.
‘Amakihi (Chlorodrepanis stejnegeri). Photo by Robby Kohley.

A study led by biologists at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo documents the loss of bird song complexity and the convergence of the songs of three species of Hawaiian honeycreepers on the island of Kaua‘i.

The three species of Hawaiian honeycreepers, ‘akeke‘e (Loxops cauruleirostris), ‘anianiau (Magumma parvus), and Kaua‘i ‘amakihi (Chlorodrepanis stejnegeri), have seen rapid declines in their population numbers in the wild due most likely to avian malaria and habitat loss. The honeycreepers forage on insects and help to pollinate plants and disperse seeds in the forests of Kaua‘i, their natural habitat.

“We did this study specifically in Kaua‘i because it is in a real crisis mode,” says Kristina Paxton, an ecologist and post-doctoral researcher at UH Hilo, who was the lead author of the study. “Their populations are crashing and malaria is probably the largest driving factor of the declines. But we are not only losing the individuals, we are losing their songs. When you go into the forest in Kaua‘i it is now quieter, and that’s losing a part of what makes the Hawaiian forest what it is. The quietness of the forest is a sign that the forest is facing challenges.”

Kristina Paxton stands in front of a bookcase of biology books and two framed picture of birds.
Kristina Paxton. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri.

Paxton is affiliated with the LOHE lab, a bioacoustics laboratory at UH Hilo led by Patrick Hart, professor of biology, and Adam Pack, professor of psychology. The lab goes by the Hawaiian name LOHE, which means “to perceive with the ear” and is an acronym for Listening Observatory for Hawaiian Ecosystems.

Click to read full article.

Establishing Foundations for Ecosystem Steering

Thursday, September 5, 2019, 10:07pm by

In January 2019, Dr. Cam Muir, along with 20 students and faculty members from the University of Mississippi, conducted research on the fungal recruitment by tea plants and soil ecosystems. Fungi are well known to play key roles in plant growth and can benefit plants by acting as a both mutualists and decomposers. The diversity of fungi and the impact of their species diversity on soil ecosystems is still poorly understood.

This collaboration between UH Hilo and Ole Miss has led to the recent submission of a $3.5 M grant proposal: Establishing Foundations for Ecosystem Steering.  The proposal team is composed of faculty from University of Surrey (UK), Waseda University (Japan), Georgia Institute of Technology (USA), Earth-Life Science (Japan), University of Mississippi, and University f Hawai`I at Hilo (USA).

Dr. Matt Knope awarded the Francis Davis Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019, 10:03pm by

Matthew Knope, assistant professor of biology, received the Frances Davis award for Excellence in Teaching. Assistant Prof. Knope joined UH Hilo in fall 2017 and quickly became known for putting teaching and his students as his highest priorities. Colleagues praise him for demonstrating his commitment and strong ability to integrate research and teaching and to directly involve students in his research. He is considered a natural and effective teacher and a rising star in the field of ecology and evolution.

Local tour company donates $25K to UH Hilo biology program to research mosquito-borne avian disease

Monday, April 8, 2019, 7:42pm by

The gift from Hawaii Forest & Trail will support research and technologies to reduce mosquito populations that spread avian disease in Hawai‘i.

Red ‘i‘iwi drinking nectar from flower.
The ‘i‘iwi is a scarlet honeycreeper native to Hawai‘i and decreasing in numbers. Photo by Ludovic Hirlimann/Wikimedia.

A local tour company with a strong conservation mission has donated $25,000 to the biology department at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. The gift from Hawaii Forest & Trail will support research and technologies to reduce mosquito populations that spread avian disease in Hawai‘i.

“It’s our hope that through this donation, important research work will continue to make strides in protecting Hawaiian forest birds, including our much-loved ‘i‘iwi,” says Rob Pacheco, founder and president of the tour company.

Mosquito control

The primary reason for the continued decline of native honeycreepers is mosquito-transmitted diseases such as avian malaria and avian pox. Climate change is exacerbating the problem, and mosquitoes are beginning to move up in elevation to the last disease-free habitats on all Hawai‘i islands.

Research shows mosquito suppression can be achieved by introducing different strains of Wolbachia bacteria into mosquitoes, which drops reproduction rates. Wolbachia male-based insect control programs have been highly successful for reducing local mosquito populations around the world.

“The ultimate goal is to be able to release male mosquitoes with a different Wolbachia strain into the wild to mate with wild females, to suppress mosquito populations,” says Jolene Sutton, assistant professor of biology and top researcher into native avian disease via mosquitoes. None of the mosquitoes here are native to Hawai‘i. If we can reduce or even eliminate mosquito populations in Hawai‘i, we have a good change of saving many iconic bird species. Our research focuses on evaluating and developing novel strategies for mosquito control, including Wolbachia-based strategies and genetic ones. We want to ensure that new technologies are safe and effective.”

She adds, “This donation will go a long way to help further this work. We are very grateful to have this kind of local interest and support.”

UH Hilo ecologists win medal for provocative native forest restoration research

Monday, April 8, 2019, 7:39pm by

The provocative aspect of the study is in its relatively accepting attitude toward nonnative, noninvasive plant species, often the traditional nemesis of ecologists.

By Leah Sherwood.

Forest restoration researchers and assistants (left to right) Corie Yanger, Jodie Rosam, Susan Cordell, Becky Ostertag, and Amanda Uowolo. The researchers recently won a Bradshaw Medal for their innovative approach to native forest restoration. Courtesy photos, click to enlarge.

Researchers at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo were recently awarded a Bradshaw Medal for their provocative paper questioning a fundamental assumption of the field of restoration ecology, which is the science of restoring natural habitats that have been subject to anthropogenic disturbances.

The Bradshaw Medal, named after British ecologist and restoration pioneer Tony Bradshaw, is given by the Society for Ecological Restoration, in recognition of a scientific paper published in the Society’s major journal, Restoration Ecology, which advances the field of restoration ecology.

The paper, which is the product of observations from multiple studies done over several years, is titled, “Quandaries of a decade-long restoration experiment trying to reduce invasive species: beat them, join them, give up, or start over?” (2016). Lead author is Susan Cordell, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, Hilo, with coauthors Laura Warman, also with the USDA Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, and Rebecca Ostertag and Jené Michaud of UH Hilo.

Cordell is also an affiliate faculty member at UH Hilo who serves in an advisory role for the tropical conservation biology and environmental sciences graduate program. Coauthors Ostertag, an ecologist, and Michaud, a hydrologist, are both professors and researchers at UH Hilo. Warman is a plant ecologist with the USDA forestry institute who also teaches at UH Hilo.

A provocative approach to native forest restoration

The provocative aspect of the paper is in its relatively accepting attitude towards nonnative, noninvasive plant species, often the traditional nemesis of ecologists. The authors argue that in some cases it is better to “give up” on the traditional goal of restoring disturbed ecosystems to their pristine native state, and instead pursue a “hybrid” approach that incorporates both native plant species and nonnative (but noninvasive) plants.

“Our perspective is that in many cases we cannot keep these areas all native,” says Ostertag. “It is just not feasible or pragmatic.”

Cleared space in dense forest.
Bill Buckley, forest response coordinator at the Big Island Invasive Species Committee, in forest clearing created for research.

The focus of the paper is a multiyear, multistudy restoration project called Liko Nā Pilina, which in Hawaiian means roughly “growing or budding novel relationships.” The project is an ongoing effort to restore an area of Hawaiian lowland wet forest, an ecosystem found on the northeastern sides of the Hawaiian islands and that is particularly susceptible to loss of native plant species biodiversity and domination of invasive plant species. Hawaii’s native lowland wet forests were first altered by the arrival of the Polynesians and later exploited by Western colonists for agricultural and housing purposes. The result was an altered ecosystem and loss of biodiversity. Today, remnants of the forests remain on Hawai‘i Island in patchy forest reserves in Puna and East Hawai‘i, but they remain threatened by development.

In practice, ecologists want to restore ecosystems back to their original state because the native species evolved over time to fill certain niches or functions in the overall system. This was the original goal of the research team in the Liko Nā Pilina project.

“We had originally done an experiment where we removed all the invasives from our ten-by-ten meter plots,” explains Ostertag. “We thought by removing the highly invasive species we would able to improve the germination of the native species and get them to regenerate. However, that is not really what we got. And the amount of weeding we had to do to keep out the invasives was really really intense. We estimated about 40 person hours per meter squared to do all the weeding to keep it native.”

“Weeding will kill you!” agrees Michaud, the hydrologist whose primary role was studying water flow in the study area. She and Ostertag, along with rest of the team, started to realize that the ecosystem would never return to an-all native state, and even if this were possible, the cost would be too high and payoff too low.

“We realized we needed a different strategy,” Ostertag says. “Just removing the invasives, just doing a passive restoration, was not going to work, the effort was too great. We decided that we needed to do a more active restoration that involved planting the specific species we wanted. This led us to this idea of planting a hybrid forest, making hybrid ecosystems of the native and nonnative species grow together, using nonnative species that were not invasive but that could fill important functional roles. This hypothesis led us to collecting really important data that showed that one problem is that the native community is missing certain functional roles. Therefore, by including nonnative, noninvasive species that can fill these functional roles that are currently missing, we might have more success.”

An example of a functional role that can be filled by a nonnative species is providing shade.

“We found that we were missing fast-growing species with large leaves that create a lot of shade,” explains Ostertag. “We need the shade in the environment because that’s what keeps out the highly invasive seedlings. We need to manipulate the light environment to the goldilocks level where it is just right. We needed species that closed the canopy faster and helped produce shade to keep out the undesirable invasive species but that still allowed native species’ seedlings to regenerate.”

Two researchers with sapling and bucket of soil, planting young tree in forest clearing.
(Left to right) Becky Ostertag, researcher, and Taite Winthers-Barcelona, invasive species field associate at the Big Island Invasive Species Committee, planting ‘ulu (breadfruit tree) in research plot.

Ostertag adds that they plan to continue to manage the forest indefinitely to support the growth of native species and prohibit the spread of invasives under their new strategy of mixing native and nonnative species to fill functional roles.

“If you are in it for the long game you can start to see real changes,” she says. “After five years, we are starting to see the canopy getting darker and starting to close, and we are really reducing our weeding effort.”

Fine tuning the approach

Ostertag emphasizes that the researchers’ hybrid restoration strategy is not appropriate in every case.

“Our strategy for mixing native and nonnative is less palatable at higher elevations, which are more native-dominated,” she says. “And if there is already high native cover in an area you may not need this method. However, at the lower elevations, which are completely dominated by these highly invasive species, we think this is a realistic approach.”

Ostertag says that winning the Bradshaw Medal was a surprise considering that the team had originally written a completely different type of data-rich paper focusing on weeding and invasive species reoccurrence. The original idea was not reviewing well and instead a new paper emerged.

“We decided we would morph our study into a story format and a lessons learned paper,” says Ostertag. “It took on more of a narrative structure. I think people like the paper because we explain our experience over a decade of work, and the trials and tribulations of this lowland wet forest restoration project.”

Their mixing of native and nonnative species may raise the eyebrows of some conservation ecologists, but Ostertag says her colleagues in Hawai‘i have been very receptive to the hybrid approach.

“Ecologists who work in Hawai‘i were enthusiastic and encouraging because they understand the huge problem that we have with invasive species here,” says Ostertag. “Hawai‘i is like an endpoint on the conservation continuum. Half of our flora is nonnative, we have these highly disturbed systems in the low elevations, and if you go to most places you don’t see native species. They are completely altered, modified systems. Once people realize this, they understand that this is a potentially viable strategy that deserves to be tested.”

 

About the author of this story: Leah Sherwood is a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University. 

UH Hilo Biology student awarded S-STEM scholarship

Monday, April 8, 2019, 7:27pm by

Mr. Jesse Leavitt, a University of Hawai‘i at Hilo Biology major, has been awarded $5,000 from the Scholarships for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (S-STEM) Program. Leavitt, a senior at UH Hilo, is actively involved in several research programs. In 2018 he was a PIPES-REU intern, and he has been a member of the Conservation Genomics Research Group since 2016. His research experiences include investigating mosquito control technologies, and exploring conservation genomics of the native Hawaiian crow. He has presented his research at the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science annual symposium, and at the Hawai‘i Conservation Conference. He is currently working on a technical report that will be used to assist managers responsible for the Hawaiian crow conservation-breeding program.

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the S-STEM scholarship will help support Leavitt’s studies as a STEM major at UH Hilo.

 

Photo above: Jesse Leavitt

Dr. Becky Ostertag’s publication wins Bradshaw Medal

Wednesday, February 13, 2019, 6:11pm by

The Society for Ecological Restoration recently presented the Bradshaw Medal to two outstanding papers published in its peer-reviewed journal, Restoration Ecology. Named for famed British ecologist and restoration pioneer Tony Bradshaw, the award honors scientific papers that advance the field of restoration ecology in a significant way. Susan Cordell, Rebecca Ostertag, Jené Michaud, and Laura Warman published “Quandaries of a decadelong restoration experiment trying to reduce invasive species: beat them, join them, give up, or start over?”  Their study investigated the most effective way to reforest native species in Hawai’i to recover biodiversity.  Ostertag is a member of the Biology department and Michaud is a member of the Geology department at UH Hilo, while Cordell and Warman are affiliated with the USDA Forest Service Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry. Full article: https://www.ser.org/news/434318/

UH Hilo students featured in the University of Hawaiʻi News for the use of cutting-edge technologies to study invasive mosquitoes

Tuesday, February 12, 2019, 12:41am by

Read the article and watch the video to learn more about how UH Hilo graduate student, Jared Nishimoto, and undergraduates under the supervision of Dr. Jolene Sutton are developing genetic technologies that will help control invasive mosquitoes in Hawaiʻi.

UH Hilo faculty, Dr. Matt Knope, is using his own classroom to examine best practices in undergraduate research experiences

Tuesday, February 12, 2019, 12:38am by

CURE (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences) have proven effective for a wide-variety of student learning objectives and Matt Knope, along with his collaborators at Arizona State, are investigating which model of scientific inquiry results in better outcomes for students. Read the full article for more information.