Biology Department News

UH Hilo students present their biomedical research at national conference in California

Tuesday, December 10, 2019, 6:11pm by

A group of UH Hilo undergraduates participating in a federal program to advance under-represented students in biomedical and behavioral sciences presented their research at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students held in Anaheim, Calif.

By Leah Sherwood.

SHARP students sit for group photo.
Group of UH Hilo students at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students held in Anaheim, Calif., in November. Front, from left, Joshua Turner, Keinan B. Agonias, and Dallas Tada. Back row, from left, Evangeline Lemieux, Maya Sunshine P. Bernardo, Duke E. Escobar, and Kieran-Tiaye A. Long. The students presented their research at the conference. Courtesy photo.

A group of University of Hawai‘i at Hilo undergraduates participating in a campus program that supports under-represented students interested in biomedical and behavioral sciences presented their research at a national conference last month. The work was presented at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students held in Anaheim, Calif.

The students are part of the Students of Hawai‘i Advanced Research Project, commonly called the SHARP program, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) and administered through the UH Hilo Department of Anthropology. The program supports all under-represented UH Hilo students, particularly Native Hawaiians and Pacific islanders, to develop interest and competence in biomedical and behavioral sciences research to help them advance to doctoral studies.

Currently, UH Hilo is the only school in the state of Hawai‘i that has a SHARP program.

Lenard Allen
Lenard Allen

For many of the students, the trip was their first time presenting off-island at a major conference. Lenard Allen, the SHARP coordinator, says these events are necessary because they place the students in new situations and force them to communicate their work with strangers, which builds their confidence.

“They leave the comfort of the institution; some of our students have not traveled off the island,” says Allen. He explains that attending the conference, watching the different speakers, and networking are key to their success and open doors to them. “Some of our students were offered jobs during the conference,” he says.

Approximately 5,500 participants representing more than 350 institutions attended the four-day conference (see the program). Undergraduates and early researchers were invited to showcase their research through poster or oral presentations, representing 12 disciplines within the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The UH Hilo students networked with peers and other researchers and professionals, learned about graduate school opportunities, and honed their professional development skills.

Keinan Agonias stands next to his poster presentation on antimicrobial effecacy.
Keinan Agonias stands next to his poster presentation on “Antibacterial Effects of Metrosideros polymorpha on Colony Forming Units of Pathogenic Bacteria.” Courtesy photo.

Seven of the students presented their undergraduate work in biomedical and behavioral sciences research. The following student papers were presented.

  • Keinan B. Agonias: “Antibacterial Effects of Metrosideros polymorpha on Colony Forming Units of Pathogenic Bacteria.” Agonias’s coauthor and faculty mentor is Stan Nakanishi, professor of biology at UH Hilo.
  • Maya Sunshine P. Bernardo: “Effects of Cortisol and Fat Distribution Pre- and Post-season of Women Student-athletes Volleyball Season.” The coauthors include her faculty mentor Lincoln Gotshalk, associate professor of kinesiology and exercise sciences, and UH Hilo undergraduates Jia Hao Yao and Tyler Honda.
  • Duke E. Escobar: “Antibacterial Effect on Pathogenic Bacteria of Metrosideros polymorpha Liko Extract.” The coauthors are fellow SHARP student Agonias, and faculty mentor Nakanishi.
  • Evangeline Lemieux: “Stress and Recovery After Kilauea Eruption.” The coauthors are fellow SHARP student Joshua Turner and faculty mentor Lynn Morrison, professor of anthropology.
  • Kieran-Tiaye A. Long: “Investigating the Effects of Social Stress on Light-avoidance Behavior in Planaria.” Long’s coauthor and faculty mentor is Nakanishi.
  • Dallas Tada: “Development of Polymeric Nanoparticles of Natural Polyphenols for Improved Oral Delivery.” Tada’s coauthor and faculty mentor is Abhijit Date, assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences.
  • Joshua Turner: “Kilauea Lava Animal Rescue.” The coauthors include UH Hilo undergraduate Lemieux and faculty mentor Morrison.

UH Hilo students in the SHARP program receive faculty mentoring, paid research assistantships, and access to conferences and networking. UH Hilo students who have been part of this program have received admissions to advanced degree programs at such schools as Stanford University, the John A. Burns School of Medicine, and the University of California, Berkeley.

The UH Hilo SHARP program is currently funded through May 2021 at which time new NIH mandates will require 75 percent of staffing cost be provided by the university.


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. 

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).

Related stories

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 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.

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 >> 

Images of Narrissa smiling in the lab, looking in microscope. Background image of 2019 SACNAS artwork featuring Narrissa holding a tree.
See SACNAS’s other Tweets

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.

UH Hilo ecologists identify groups of species at greatest risk of extinction

Tuesday, September 24, 2019, 6:14pm by

Researchers Maya Munstermann and Matthew Knope hope the results of their innovative research will help conservationists and policy makers develop better strategies for protecting endangered species.

By Leah Sherwood.

Maya Munstermann giving a PowerPoint presentation. On the slide is a graphic of primate, frog, bird, with "Extinction Event" line and on the other side of the line, a snake.
Maya Munstermann, who recently received her master of science in tropical conservation biology and environmental science from UH Hilo, presents her research on extinction at the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 21, 2019. @MunstermannMaya

A recent graduate of the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is launching her career with an impressive portfolio of research data already collected in the field of species protection. Maya Munstermann and her thesis advisor Matthew Knope, an evolutionary ecologist specializing in speciation and extinction, along with colleagues at Stanford, Tufts, Swarthmore, and University of California Santa Barbara, are pioneering a new data-driven approach to assessing extinction risk that “zooms out” from the traditional focus on individual species to examine groups of species that are at risk based on their ecological traits.

The work is documented in Munstermann’s master’s thesis, titled “The global ecological signature of extinction risk in terrestrial vertebrates,” which she defended at UH Hilo in July 2019 (see full video of defense). She also presented the research at the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in July 2019.

A new approach

Maya Munstermann
Maya Munstermann

The new approach in this research looks for global ecological “signatures” of extinction risk in terrestrial vertebrates by both generating and analyzing new and existing large data sets and identifying statistically significant associations between ecological traits and extinction risk.

For example, using ArcGIS, a geographic information system platform, to map the global distribution of more than 24,000 threatened terrestrial vertebrate species, Munstermann was able to demonstrate that species with smaller range sizes face a significantly elevated risk of extinction.

In addition to range size, Munstermann categorized each terrestrial species according to its ecological “mode of life,” which encompasses its habitat affinity, mode of locomotion, and mode of feeding. Of the 14 ecological traits Munstermann analyzed, she found that brachiating, scavenging, and aerial species currently face the greatest risk of extinction.

“Brachiating means using your arms to swing from branch to branch, which is a mode of locomotion associated with primates,” explains Munstermann. “Scavenging refers to species like vultures and other birds of prey who look for already-dead animal material on the ground to feed on. And the aerial species are mainly sea birds who spend the majority of their time in the air.”

Three photos: from left, large black gibbon in tree, vulture eating carcass, and white albatross with brown chick.
The research shows brachiating, scavenging, and aerial species currently face the greatest risk of extinction. Examples are, from left, endangered white handed gibbon, vulture, and short tailed albatross. Photo credits, from left Trisha ShearsDipaliLath, and Greg Balogh/USFWS.

Munstermann and Knope hope that the results will help conservationists and policy makers develop better strategies for targeting species for protection.

Matthew Knope
Matthew Knope

“The fact that these ecological traits are at elevated risk of extinction tells us something different than the traditional view of conservation, which focuses on a particular species of concern and tries to protect it,” says Knope. “This is a different lens on the biodiversity crisis. Maya’s work shows that there are entire ecological functions that are at risk of being lost. These species are providing particular ecological roles, and if these roles are at risk of being lost globally, that’s something we need to know so that it can hopefully be addressed.”

As an example of an important ecological service at risk of being lost, Munstermann cites the scavenging function of species such vultures.

“They make important contributions that we don’t often think about,” says Munstermann. “For example, when cattle die, the carcass lies there, and nobody’s coming by and cleaning it up. The vultures and other scavengers are the ones that eat those carcasses. It’s an extremely important ecological service in terms of disease dynamics and also for nutrient cycling later on.”

Knope agrees that the loss of scavenging species has important implications for ecosystem function.

“The California condor is a poster child species for conservation, but Maya’s work really highlights that it’s not just the condor, but scavenging species as a whole group that are at risk. This high level of endangerment of scavengers means that we may already be facing increases in disease transmission that can have negative impacts on other species, including our own.”

Help with collecting the data

Munstermann and Knope’s data-driven approach required a large database documenting the ecological traits of more than 25,000 terrestrial vertebrate species. Since no such database existed, Munstermann had to create it herself. Luckily, Knope was able to recommend strongly motivated undergraduate students who worked as directed research students with Munstermann and were instrumental to the success of the data collection process.

Research team stands behind piles of research books stacked on table.
Maya Munstermann stands with group of UH Hilo undergraduate students assisting with research and data collection in the library. From left to right, Wai Wichimai, Munstermann, Melia Takakusagi, Lavin Uehara, and Heaven Tharp. Courtesy photo.

“Matt found these great undergraduate students in his biostatistics and evolution classes,” says Munstermann. “The students generally worked nine hours a week over the course of two years, categorizing each species’ ecological traits. We went through literally every single book on terrestrial vertebrate ecology in the UH Hilo library, book by book, species by species, and entered their habitat, locomotion, and feeding categories into a large spreadsheet.”

The undergraduate students from UH Hilo who contributed to the data collection effort were Melia TakakusagiLavin UeharaKamamaluwaiwai “Wai” WichimaiAshley RomeroHeaven TharpErin Berg, and Nikola Rodriguez.

Nikola Rodriguez and Maya Munstermann working on lap tops.
From left, Nikola Rodriguez and Maya Munstermann collect data for research project.

Another contributor to the data collection effort was Megan Nakomoto, a student from Waiakea High School who joined the project at age 15 with the encouragement of her science teacher, Whitney Aragaki (also a graduate of UH Hilo’s tropical conservation biology and environmental science program). With mentoring from Munstermann, Knope, and Aragaki, Nakamoto also pursued a side project based on the ecology of extinction risk of terrestrial mammals. After her project won top honors in a high school science competition on the island of Hawai‘i, Nakamoto flew to Honolulu to compete in the Pacific Symposium for Science and Sustainability, a statewide science competition for high school students.

Seeing the pedagogical value of Munstermann’s data, Knope decided to make it the centerpiece of his undergraduate evolution course (BIO 357). Students in last year’s class generated new data and used R, a computer programming environment that can be used for statistical analyses, to identify statistically significant associations between ecological traits and extinction risk in mammals and birds. In the final week of the class the students presented their findings at a research poster symposium. Knope’s pedagogical experiment in CURE (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences) was successful and he and Munstermann are repeating the project in this year’s evolution classes.


Funding for Munstermann’s master’s research came mainly from a Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The CREST grant also funded Munstermann’s travel to the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Kuala Lumpur in July 2019. In July 2018 Munstermann also received an NSF LSAMP travel grant to attend and present her work at the annual conference of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.


Collaborators on the research project from other institutions include Jonathan Payne from Stanford University, Noel Heim from Tufts University, Douglas McCauley from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Steve Wang from Swarthmore College. Munstermann, Knope, and their collaborators are currently in the process of preparing the research to be submitted for publication in an interdisciplinary scientific journal and Munstermann is applying to doctoral programs to continue her research at the nexus of ecology and conservation biology.

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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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