UH Hilo biologists contribute expertise to native forest restoration bill

Tuesday, July 28, 2020, 6:05pm by

The researchers credit collaboration between the university, the federal forest service, the county, and an independent lawyer with the success of Bill 178, meant to create two additional native forest dedications, including a tax incentive for property owners in Hawai‘i county.

By Susan Enright

Kanawao (Hydrangea arguta)
Kanawao (Hydrangea arguta), one of the many plants cataloged by UH Hilo graduate student Sebastian Wells in a list of native and non-native plant species that can be used to maximize the success of native forest restoration projects based on elevation and rates of precipitation. Kanawao is Hawaiʻi’s endemic hydrangea and is most commonly found in montane wet forests throughout the Hawaiian islands from 1,000 to 7,000 feet in elevation. This species has adapted to low light conditions as it grows in the understory of many native forests and does best when it is planted in a location where it receives partial sunlight in moist, well-drained soils. Photo credit: Sebastian Wells.
Rebecca Ostertag
Rebecca Ostertag

Research at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo on hybrid forest ecosystems is directly behind the creation of a bill currently under consideration at the Hawai‘i County Council. Bill 178 is an amendment to the current Hawaiʻi County Property Tax Code. Under the proposed property tax amendments, Bill 178 would create two additional native forest dedications: 1) a functional forest and 2) a successional forest land-use dedication. These changes would allow private landowners to receive reduced property tax rates for native forest restoration on Hawaiʻi Island, and promote the islandwide engagement of preserving native forests.

The bill has passed two hearings unanimously with the next scheduled for Aug. 5. If it passes the next hearing and is approved by Mayor Harry Kim, it will become law.

  • Update: At the Aug. 5 hearing, the Hawai‘i County Council unanimously approved the bill. It now goes to mayor for signature.
  • Update: The mayor signed the bill into law on Aug. 17, 2020.

Forest ecosystems expert Rebecca Ostertag, a professor of biology and associate program chair of the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science (TCBES) graduate program at UH Hilo, and her colleague Susan Cordell of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, are working directly with environmental lawyer Leslie Cole-Brooks, who wrote the bill.

Sebastian Wells
Sebastian Wells

In addition, UH Hilo student Sebastian Wells, in the professional internship track of the TCBES graduate program and advised by internship coordinator Lisa Canale, is working as an intern this summer with the County of Hawaiʻi Real Property Tax Office under the guidance of Lisa Miura, division head administrator at the tax office. Among his many duties, Wells is developing communication tools for the public and training county employees in evaluating forest management plans.

“My role as an intern is to develop documents that would support the implementation of the proposed legislation as it will help streamline the process for the county, helping them to effectively and efficiently evaluate forestry management plans while also providing landowners with the tools they need in order to maximize the success of their native forest restoration endeavors,” Wells says.


Ostertag explains that about two years ago, she and Cordell were contacted by the County of Hawai‘i to give a presentation to a working group convened to analyze the current property tax programs related to agriculture and to propose suggestions to the county council for change. A subset of the agricultural programs is a Native Forest Program that is intended to promote open space and the persistence of native plants.

“We did our presentation in October 2018,” says Ostertag. “We talked about our research on the Liko Nā Pilina project, which is developing a new restoration technique using native and non-native, non-invasive species in combination to keep out the highly invasive plants.”

In May 2019, the two forest advocates were contacted by environmental lawyer Cole-Brooks, who heard about Ostertag and Cordell’s research through a member of the county council. Discussions took place about rewriting the county code to allow for a cheaper tax rate, an incentive, for doing restoration and to add this incentive to the native forest dedication already on the books, in which there was no direct credit for restoration.

“We added categories for doing native forest restoration, functional forest restoration—an outgrowth of our years working in Liko Nā Pilina—and successional forest restoration,” explains Ostertag. “We spent a whole year developing this and Leslie did the legwork of writing the code and doing outreach to a lot of people.”

Ostertag then recruited graduate student Wells to work on the project. Among other work, Wells is helping the tax office with communicating about the program to the public, making species lists, developing guidelines for the forest management plans that owners need to write and how the county can evaluate the plans.

Collaboration and Applied Learning

Ostertag credits the collaboration between the university, the U. S. Forest Service, the county, and the independent lawyer with the success of the bill.

“It’s super exciting that the bill is based on years of research, and how that basic research expanded and blossomed into policy and training applications.”

That training can be seen most clearly in the work of graduate student Wells. Among his many duties in regard to Bill 178, he is working on the following:

  • Creating digital habitat suitability maps with a Geographic Information System (GIS) that will show the ranges and types of native plants that can be used for forest restoration efforts throughout Hawaiʻi county
  • A corresponding list of native and non-native non-invasive plant species that can be used to maximize the success of native forest restoration projects based on elevation and rates of precipitation
  • Developing an evaluation criterion that the county can use to track private landowners progress
  • The development of guidelines for forestry and natural resource management professionals to use to write native forest assessment reports and whether landowners are adhering to the guidelines for native forest dedication
  • Quantifying the economic value of native forests based on the ecosystem services they provide the residents of Hawaiʻi county
  • Upon completion, train staff at the Hawaiʻi County Real Property Tax Division how to use these documents

“So far I have completed the plant species list and the annotated bibliography quantifying the economic value of native forests and am now starting to work on forestry management plans that will be used by the county and the property owners who are interested in dedicating their land to one of three native forest dedications outlined in Bill 178,” Wells explains. “I have also submitted verbal and written testimony in support of Bill 178 during the last two hearings on July 7th and July 22nd, and I also plan on submitting another round of verbal and written testimony during the last hearing on August 5th.”


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.

Update Sept. 8, 2020: Interview with ThinkTech Hawaii, featuring Leslie Cole Brooks, Rebecca Ostertag, and Susan Cordell. Host is Jay Fidell. 

Evolutionary ecologist Matthew Knope publishes an invited review article with The Royal Society

Friday, June 12, 2020, 5:58pm by

The work by Matthew Knope and research colleagues argues that animals have not only evolved increased resiliency to environmental change, but have also made the physical environment increasingly more stable.

Large school of fish above coral reef.
“Larger-bodied animals, enabled by increased anatomical complexity, have been increasingly able to mix the marine sediments and water columns, promoting stability in biogeochemical cycles,” says Matthew Knope, assistant professor of biology at UH Hilo and an author of review article published in The Royal Society’s Interface Focus. Photo: Coral gardens, Palmyra Atoll, courtesy of The Ocean Agency/NOAA Fisheries.

A review article by University of Hawai‘i at Hilo evolutionary ecologist Matthew Knope, and a collaborative research team from several universities, was published June 12, 2020, at The Royal Society’s Interface Focus. The article, “The evolution of complex life and the stabilization of the Earth system,” is the product of an invited paper presented to The Royal Society, delivered by team member Jonathan Payne, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at Stanford University, CA, on behalf of the group.

Matthew Knope
Matthew Knope

The work focuses on the evolution of complex life, and posits that animals have not only evolved increased resiliency to environmental change, but have also made the physical environment increasingly more stable, helping to explain the well-documented decrease in background extinction rates in the animal fossil record over the past 500 million years.

“Scientists have long been interested in better understanding the feedbacks between the living and non-living components of Earth across time,” says Knope. “Based on evidence from paleontology, geochemistry, and comparative physiology, we argue that the evolution of complex life, on the whole, has actually decreased volatility in the climate system, and increased the habitability of the planet for animals, including ourselves.”


The half-billion-year history of animal evolution is characterized by decreasing rates of background extinction. Earth’s increasing habitability for animals could result from several processes: (i) a decrease in the intensity of interactions among species that lead to extinctions; (ii) a decrease in the prevalence or intensity of geological triggers such as flood basalt eruptions and bolide impacts; (iii) a decrease in the sensitivity of animals to environmental disturbance; or (iv) an increase in the strength of stabilizing feedbacks within the climate system and biogeochemical cycles.

There is no evidence that the prevalence or intensity of interactions among species or geological extinction triggers have decreased over time. There is, however, evidence from palaeontology, geochemistry and comparative physiology that animals have become more resilient to an environmental change and that the evolution of complex life has, on the whole, strengthened stabilizing feedbacks in the climate system.

The differential success of certain phyla and classes appears to result, at least in part, from the anatomical solutions to the evolution of macroscopic size that were arrived at largely during Ediacaran and Cambrian time. Larger-bodied animals, enabled by increased anatomical complexity, were increasingly able to mix the marine sediment and water columns, thus promoting stability in biogeochemical cycles.

In addition, body plans that also facilitated ecological differentiation have tended to be associated with lower rates of extinction. In this sense, Cambrian solutions to Cambrian problems have had a lasting impact on the trajectory of complex life and, in turn, fundamental properties of the Earth system.

Knope’s research on evolution and extinction rates is making a big impact on the field. Notably, in 2016, was the publication of his collaborative work on the emerging biodiversity crisis in the world’s oceans in the journal Science. By comparing modern extinction risk data with information on ancient extinctions, Knope and his colleagues determined the potential for future human-driven mass extinction could rival the largest mass extinctions in the past, and that the current biodiversity crisis is unlike any the planet has ever experienced.

Recently, a collaborative study led by Knope and published Feb. 28, 2020, also in the journal Science, uncovers findings that challenge long-held assumptions in the field of evolution, positing that animal biodiversity in modern oceans is best explained by lower extinction rates in animal groups that are ecologically diverse, rather than by higher origination rates as previously predicted.

UH Hilo students identify previously undocumented oyster species in Hawai‘i

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 1:57am by

In identifying the oyster, the students did all the research from start to finish: DNA extraction, amplified a gene that’s typically used for DNA barcoding, did the analysis, and then wrote a report on what they found.

By Leah Sherwood.

At top is photo of class of students, at bottom is two images of oyster.
At top, the students in a UH Hilo genetics class who did the lab work used to identify a previously undocumented oyster species in Hawai‘i. The genetic study expands the known range of the western Pacific Ostrea equestris (bottom photos), a species previously documented in China, Japan, and New Zealand, by providing the first verification of its occurrence in Hawai‘i. Courtesy photos.

A previously undocumented oyster species has been recognized for the first time in Hawai‘i by a team of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo in a collaborative project with community partners.

The work was done as part of a Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience, commonly called a CURE project, by a genetics class with lab work (BIOL 376L) taught by Jolene Sutton, assistant professor of biology at UH Hilo. CURE projects are large-scale, where an entire class works together to tackle a single research question.

“We brought the oysters into the class and the students did everything from start to finish,” says Sutton, an evolutionary geneticist specializing in conservation biology. “They did the DNA extraction, amplified a gene that’s typically used for DNA barcoding, did the analysis, and then wrote a report on what they found.”

The project

Jolene Sutton
Jolene Sutton

Oyster species are difficult to identify based on morphology alone, but their identities can be resolved by applying genetic and genomic technologies. Until now, four extant species of true oyster have been documented in Hawai‘i. The genetic study by the UH Hilo students expands the known range of the western Pacific Ostrea equestris, a species previously documented in China, Japan, and New Zealand, by providing the first verification of its occurrence in Hawai‘i.

The discovery has been submitted to a journal for peer review and is currently available as a paper on the pre-print server biorxiv.org.

Sutton’s coauthors on the paper include the nine students in the genetics class: Keinan AgoniasNicole AntonioBrandi BautistaRiley CabarlocMaata FakasieikiNoreen Aura Mae GonongTorey RamangmouLavin Uehara, and Jade Wong.

Maria Haws
Maria Haws

Other coauthors are the course’s two teaching assistants, Jared Nishimoto and Jeremy Schrader, both graduate students from the tropical conservation biology and environmental science programMaria Haws, professor of aquaculture and director of the UH Hilo Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center, along with colleagues Marni Rem-McGeachyHope HelgDaniel Wilkie, and David Littrell; and Rhiannon Chandler, executive director of Waterkeepers Hawaiian Islands.

The project arose serendipitously when Haws approached Sutton with samples of oysters she had collected but could not identify. Sutton, who was already having her CURE students do DNA barcoding in the genetics lab class using pre-specified training samples, had been looking for a project that had more relevance to the community. “I wanted my students to do a project with a purpose.”

The previously undocumented oyster identified by the class as part of a large species complex known as Ostrea stentina/aupouria/equestris. “It’s a group of oysters that are closely related and very difficult to distinguish from one another,” says Sutton. “We took the analyses a little bit further and it turns out that the samples that we have in Hawai‘i are most closely related to the western Pacific branch of Ostrea equestris, which are associated with China, Japan, and New Zealand.”

The students’ findings may prove useful for the state’s aquaculture industry.

“Here in Hawai‘i we have a resurgence of aquaculture and traditional fishponds and using locally available species for aquaculture purposes, both for food and, in the case of oysters, for environmental remediation,” explains Sutton. “This task of identifying the different oysters in Hawai‘i offers some potential to diversify the markets. This could be something is marketable for food, since people do eat the Ostrea species. If this is a species that grows really well and is already here, maybe this a good option for aquaculture purposes.”

The value of a CURE classroom

Sutton says the CURE classroom format is extremely valuable for student learning and engagement.

“There are data showing that CUREs increase retention and student success,” she explains. “But we need more support for CUREs as they are a lot more effort and time given that it is real research. They require much more planning and flexibility than my other courses. The role of graduate student teaching assistants was critical to accomplishing this project the way we did and in the timeframe that we did it.”

The CURE format also made it possible for every undergraduate enrolled in the class to be published as a coauthor of a scientific paper. “It was really exciting for the students when we told them that we have this result that we think is worth publishing and we want you to be coauthors,” says Sutton.

Based on the results from spring 2019, Sutton secured additional seed funding to continue similar research for the spring 2020 semester. “We have a cohort of twelve students plus an undergraduate teaching assistant. They have been working on more oysters from more locations in Hawai‘i.”

Even with the COVID-19 interruption and the challenges associated with online lab classes, Sutton says she is prepared to teach the students remotely how to analyze the collected data using a combination of different free programs used in genetic analysis.

The work of the two graduate students was partially supported by the National Science Foundation. On the Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center side, the work was partially supported by the Center for Tropical and Subtropical Aquaculture and the UH Sea Grant Program.


Story by Leah Sherwood, 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.

Long-term study by UH Hilo scientists shows Hawai‘i Island forests can regenerate once cattle and pigs are fenced out

Tuesday, March 31, 2020, 8:55pm by

Twenty-five years ago, a UH Hilo biologist tagged 7,000 trees in a declining Hawai‘i Island rainforest. A recent survey of the site reveals conservationists’ efforts are paying off.

By Leah Sherwood.

Patrick Hart
Patrick Hart

Researchers at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo waited 25 years for field results from a study investigating whether or not Hawai‘i Island’s higher-elevation tropical forests could rejuvenate after destructive cattle and pigs were fenced out. The recent discovery of new and thriving growth of keiki ʻōhiʻa and koa in the studied area is good news about the forests’ native trees and the threatened bird species for whom the trees provide habitat.

UH Hilo scientists Patrick J. HartThomas IbanezShea Uehana, and Joshua Pang-Ching‘s paper, “Forest regeneration following ungulate removal in a montane Hawaiian wet forest,” was published January in the journal Restoration Ecology. Hart is a professor and Ibanez a post-doctoral fellow, both from UH Hilo’s biology department. Uehana and Pang-Ching are recent alumni of UH Hilo’s graduate program in tropical conservation biology and environmental science.

Three researchers (two men, one woman) each with backpack, stand in open field, forest in background.
UH Hilo research team members conducting forest surveys at Hakalau, Hawai‘i Island. From left, Shea Uehana (UH Hilo alumni, tropical conservation biology and environmental sciences graduate program), Ann Tanimoto-Johnson (graduate student), and Andrew Yoshimoto (UH Hilo biology undergraduate). Courtesy photo.

 The study

Hawai‘i Island’s tropical forests evolved without large herbivores and were ill-prepared to withstand their arrival in the 18th century. Cattle were introduced to the island in 1793, and their numbers increased rapidly, with feral cattle roaming the island freely. By 1960, 65 percent of the island was grazing land, most of which was formerly forest, and the cattle also were allowed to graze the remaining forested areas. Following the introduction of cattle, feral pigs were introduced and also caused extensive damage to forests through their rooting behavior and eating of seedlings and saplings.

In 1985, Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge was established to preserve approximately 13,000 hectares of higher-elevation wet forest that had been impacted by cattle and pigs. The conservationists fenced off large tracts of the preserve and by 1992 had removed all remaining cattle, most of which had become feral. Subsequently, thousands of feral pigs were removed, mainly through hunting.

In the mid-1990s, after the cattle were removed, Hart, who was then a doctoral student studying the refuge as a bird habitat, measured and tagged 7,000 trees in some of the fenced-off areas. For the 2020 paper, Hart and his colleagues returned to the same areas he had studied 25 years earlier.

The goal of the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge project was to allow the forest to passively regenerate, mainly to improve habitat for a number of threatened and endangered native Hawaiian forest bird species, but also to increase native plant diversity and native Hawaiian forest cover.

The new paper by Hart and his colleagues demonstrates that the refuge has been largely successful. “We were able to demonstrate that passive restoration can work in these upper elevation areas,” says Hart. “It’s a positive story because the bird habitat is regenerating.”

“When we returned to those areas that I had studied 25 years ago, we found 4,000 new recruits [young trees] five cm in diameter in those same plots,” says Hart. “Going up there 25 years ago you would see mostly medium to large trees with very little understory, but now you see lots of keiki.”

Hart was particularly pleased by the fast recovery of the native koa trees (Acacia koa). “The fencing allowed this new cohort of koa trees to come up just in time,” he says. “The koa trees get big, they grow fast, and can live for 200 years, so they’re very important for the bird species up there.”

Hart says one lesson from the team’s research is that in certain cases, passive conservation management can be effective. “Often in Hawai‘i when the non-native plants come in and outcompete the native species, it requires active management and active weeding,” says Hart. “In this case, the refuge is basically doing passive management, although some maintenance of the fencing is required.”

Hart notes that the reason the restoration was successful without active management may be because the forest had not yet been completely converted into grassland, and there was still relatively intact forest left nearby, which helped the native trees to come back on their own. “Once the natives make a canopy they can shade out the invasives,” he notes.

Story by Leah Sherwood, 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.

Team CGRG genetically modifies Hawai‘i sourced Culex quinquefasciatus (southern house mosquito)

Monday, March 9, 2020, 10:22pm by

Last year team CGRG (Conservation Genomics Research Group) genetically modified Hawai‘i sourced Culex quinquefasciatus (southern house mosquito) to test stable incorporation of components of our reversible gene drive system (note two genes were inserted, not the full drive system). This work was Jared Nishimoto’s TCBES M.Sc. thesis, which he defended in July 2019, and was also developed it into an undergraduate teaching lab module.

white-eyed Culex mosquito pupae compared to black-eyed Culex mosquitor larvae

Photos taken by Jared Nishimoto

Team CGRG is currently completing construction of the full gene drive system, and plan to use CRISPR to insert it alongside an eye-color phenotype marker. They began using CRISPR in the lab a few weeks ago, and here are some early results: white-eyed Culex pupae. One photo is a wildtype shown for comparison – it has black eyespots. These photos are from G0s (injected eggs) so the next step is to rear them to see if they have a stable germline modification (the previous modification was germline stable).

Once CGRG has a high quality reference genome data (sequencing is underway), they will be able to complete the gene drive construct and start working to incorporate it into the lab colony.

All of this work is being done strictly in laboratory colonies.


University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo’s Matthew Knope featured in Science for marine animal biodiversity research

Tuesday, March 3, 2020, 2:46am by

Photograph of Matt Knope

University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo’s Matthew Knope featured in Science for marine animal biodiversity research

A team of researchers led by the Biology Department at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo has its new study on animal biodiversity patterns on the planet featured in the February 28, 2020 issue of the journal Science.

Dr. Matthew Knope, assistant professor of biology, is lead author of “Ecologically diverse clades dominate the oceans via extinction resistance,” which demonstrates that animal biodiversity in the modern oceans is best explained by lower extinction rates in animal groups that are ecologically diverse, rather than by higher origination rates, as previously predicted. Co-authors include Andrew M. Bush, University of Connecticut, Luke O. Frishkoff, University of Texas at Arlington, Noel A. Heim, Tufts University, and Jonathan L. Payne, Stanford University.

“Animals in the oceans today are more diverse than they have ever been in the history of life on Earth and scientists have long worked to describe how they have come to be that way,” Knope said. The study examined approximately 20,000 genera of fossil marine animals across the past 500 million years, and approximately 30,000 genera of living marine animals.

“Our findings clearly show that the most ecologically diverse animal groups are also the most dominate animals in terms of numbers of genera in the modern oceans,” Knope noted. “Being a member of an ecologically flexible group makes you resistant to extinction, particular during mass extinctions, that primarily impacted ecologically homogenous groups. The oceans we see today are filled with a dizzying array of species in groups like fishes, arthropods, and mollusks, not because they had higher origination rates than groups that are less common, but because they had lower extinction rates over very long intervals of time.”

Humpback whale jumping out of oceanRosemary Gillespie, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the study, explained, “Understanding how biodiversity is structured, both in space and time, has always been a major focus in biology. A significant difficulty in doing so is that current patterns of biodiversity are dictated both by origination and extinction, and while we can infer origination rates through examination of extant biodiversity, elucidating the role of extinction is notoriously difficult. This study represents some of the most detailed and careful analyses of the fossil record to date, showing very clearly the importance of the ‘slow and steady’ development of lineages through time has been a key factor in dictating which lineages have achieved the highest diversity.”

Further, Michal Kowalewski, professor of invertebrate paleontology at the University of Florida, who was also not involved with the study, said, “In a clever analysis of massive data derived from the fossil record, Knope and colleagues directly address one of the critical questions of biology, as to why do certain types of animals occupy exceptionally broad spectra of ecological niches. As importantly, the study highlights the truly unique value of paleontological data for assessing core questions of biology and exploring historical roots of the modern biosphere.”

Knope further explained, “Perhaps the fable of the tortoise and the hare is apt in explaining marine animal diversification: some groups jumped out to an early diversity lead only to be surpassed by other groups that were more ecologically diverse and less evolutionarily volatile, with steady diversification rates and strong resistance to mass extinctions.”

More information:


UH Hilo scientists document how rainfall brings harmful bacteria into Hilo Bay

Wednesday, October 23, 2019, 6:07pm by

  • The study was a collaboration of state agencies along with UH Hilo faculty and alumni now working in health and science fields.
  • Findings: Staph and fecal indicator bacteria in Hilo Bay increase with rainfall and river discharge. Cloudy water is associated with higher bacteria concentrations, and high salinity with lower bacteria concentrations.

By Leah Sherwood.

Aerial of Hilo Bay
Hilo Bay. Photo credit: Hollyn Johnson for UH Hilo.

A team of scientists from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo has published a paper in the prestigious Journal of Environmental Quality on how rainfall-driven runoff increases concentrations of harmful bacteria in Hilo Bay.

The paper is titled, “Rainfall and Streamflow Effects on Estuarine Staphylococcus aureus and Fecal Indicator Bacteria Concentrations.” The authors are Louise Economy, an alumna of UH Hilo’s tropical conservation and environment science graduate program who is currently employed by the Hawai‘i Department of Health; Tracy Wiegner, professor of marine science at UH Hilo; Ayron Strauch, a hydrologist with the Department of Land and Natural Resources; Jonathan Awaya, professor of biology at UH Hilo; and Tyler Gerken, a UH Hilo alumnus who is currently a graduate research assistant at the University of Washington.

The scientists used culture-based methods to quantify the presence of Staphylococcus aureus (known informally as “staph”), methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (abbreviated MRSA), and fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) in Hilo Bay and in soils, sands, rivers, wastewater, and storm water within the Hilo watershed. These pathogen concentrations were then compared with rainfall and river discharge levels and water quality data. The results showed that staph and FIB concentrations increased with rainfall and river discharge. In terms of water quality, high turbidity (water cloudiness) was associated with higher bacteria concentrations, and high salinity with lower bacteria concentrations.

The project is based on Economy’s undergraduate and graduate work at UH Hilo, supervised by Wiegner, as well as work done by Gerken, also supervised by Wiegner, while he was at UH Hilo earning his baccalaureate degree in environmental science.

“Staph is an opportunistic pathogenic bacterium, meaning that given the right conditions it can cause disease,” explains Economy. “It can invade wounds and cause boils, rashes, and even flesh-eating disease. These infections are becoming more and more common in the community and affecting people who were previously healthy.”

Wiegner notes that Hawai‘i has the highest level of community acquired staph infections in the country. “It’s two times the rate of the rest of the U.S.,” she says. “That may be because it’s warmer here or because people are in the water more.”

Traditionally, scientists focused on the transmission of bacterial pathogens to the water from the skin of recreational water users. “Two out of five people have staph on their skin at any given time,” explains Economy. “These people can be carriers without getting infected. However, our work showed that staph and MRSA can persist on land, and can be moved into our ocean waters through mauka to makai connections driven by rainfall.”

Swimmers beware

The scientists hope their work can be used to predict water quality conditions based on rainfall patterns and to help assess the health risks faced by swimmers, surfers, and other recreational water users in Hilo Bay. “We are trying to develop real-time models using the water quality buoys, river discharge gauges, and rainfall data to be able to make real time predictions,” says Wiegner. “The idea is that you could look at your phone and see what your risk is before going in the water.”

Until then, she advises swimmers and surfers to stay home after a heavy rainfall, since rainfall and turbidity are associated with higher pathogen concentrations. “A good rule of thumb for recreational water users is if the water is brown, turn around,” she says. “You don’t want to go in with open cuts, and if you do go in, you should always rinse off.”

Wiegner worries that climate change could make the potential risk higher. “What’s predicted by climate change is that the climate will be drier, but when we do have rain, it will be much more intense,” she says. “When you have dry periods followed by more intense rain events, you get higher pathogen concentrations.”


The project was funded through the Hau‘oli Mau Loa Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey Pacific Islands Climate Adaptation Science Center (PI-CASC). PI-CASC contributed through the Manager Climate Corps, a program that focuses on supporting research teams comprised of UH Hilo faculty, students, agencies and community members to address the island’s climate adaptation challenges. Undergraduate student research was supported by the National Science Foundation through UH Hilo’s Pacific Internship Programs for Exploring Science (PIPES) and UH Mānoa’s Center for Microbial Oceanography, and by the National Institutes of Health through the Students of Hawai‘i Advanced Research Program (SHARP).

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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).

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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.