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

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 Shears, DipaliLath, 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 Takakusagi, Lavin Uehara, Kamamaluwaiwai “Wai” Wichimai, Ashley Romero, Heaven Tharp, Erin 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.

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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.