Matthew Knope, groundbreaking evolutionary ecologist, receives tenure at UH Hilo

Associate Professor Matthew Knope is an evolutionary ecologist specializing in speciation and extinction, specifically the generation and loss of plant and animal biodiversity in Hawai‘i and globally.

Matthew Knope pictured
Matthew Knope (Courtesy photo)

By Elena Espinoza.
This story is part of a series on newly tenured faculty.

Matthew Knope, an associate professor of biology at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo who is internationally known for groundbreaking research on the ecological history of marine animals and the evolution of native Hawaiian plants, says that receiving tenure last summer means his teaching, research, and service contributions are valued and appreciated by his students, colleagues, and administrators.

“It tells me that I am good fit for the job, and for teaching and mentoring our students, and that others feel the same way,” he says. “It makes me feel included as a permanent member of the UH Hilo ‘ohana.”

Knope is an evolutionary ecologist specializing in speciation and extinction, specifically the generation and loss of plant and animal biodiversity in Hawai‘i and globally.

He says he also values the security of tenure, giving him a “much better sense of job and income security that allows for better life planning for myself and my family.”

“It is the strongest vote of confidence that I will continue to make positive contributions to my department, the [tropical conservation biology and environmental science] graduate program, the university as a whole, the greater Hawaiʻi community, and my profession on a global scale for my entire career,” he says.

Knope dreamed of becoming a biologist at the University of Hawai‘i since the seventh grade. In a tweet posted on the day he received tenure, he writes, “Well, when I was in the 7th grade my teacher asked us what we wanted to do with our lives, and I said that I wanted to be a professor of marine biology and botany at the University of Hawai‘i. Today I received my tenure and promotion in exactly those things.”

Roots in nature

Knope’s passion for ecology and conservation stems from his deep interest in the natural world. After spending the first part of his youth in the wild lands of the Lost Coast of Northern California, he moved to the island of Kaua‘i at the beginning of high school. While attending Kapa‘a High, Knope continued to explore his love for nature through hiking, surfing, and diving.

“These activities only solidified my connection with nature,” Knope shares. “I always wondered, where do all of these extraordinary species come from? How did they form? How did they get here and what threats are they facing?”

Knope decided to pursue that curiosity with a career in ecology, evolution, and conservation biology, first getting his undergraduate degree at the University of California at Santa Cruz before continuing on to earn his master’s degree at San Francisco State and his doctoral degree at Stanford University in California.

After several years of post-doctoral research and non-tenure track faculty positions at Stanford and the University of San Francisco, Knope received the opportunity to come back to his home of Hawai‘i to work at UH Hilo. Since then, he has established himself as a vital part of the UH Hilo biology department and the university community as a whole.

“The highlight of my career”

Knope says his most significant contribution to the literature is a study that helps explain the global diversity patterns of the animals in the oceans. See “Ecologically diverse clades dominate the oceans via extinction resistance” (Knope, et al., Science, Feb. 28, 2020).

In a tweet to share the news of publication, he writes, “This is a life-long dream fulfilled.”

Knope says what they found was extremely exciting and “changes the way that we think about biodiversity patters in the oceans.”

Knope says in an email that what they found was contrary to general evolutionary theory.

“The animal groups that dominate the modern oceans (e.g., fishes, mollusks, echinoderms, arthropods, etc.) in terms of their number of species have not had higher speciation rates than other groups with fewer species, as has been assumed for centuries,” he explains. “Rather, the groups that have the highest number of species today, have just had much lower extinction rates over time, and that this is due to their high ecological differentiation. This has been particularly important during mass extinctions, when the ecologically diverse groups fared much better than the groups of animals that could only make a living in one or a few different ways.”

To learn more about other related studies, see:

In addition, in a publication which Knope co-authored, the research team demonstrates the current biodiversity crisis in the oceans is unlike any other the planet has ever experienced.

Knope Evolutionary Ecology Laboratory

Knope Lanb logo with map of Hawaii and greenery.Knope is founder of the Knope Evolutionary Ecology Laboratory at UH Hilo.

The main goals of the research program at the lab are: 1) integrating the way biologists study living organisms with the way fossil organisms are studied, so that direct comparisons can be made between the modern and the ancient and 2) using genomic sequencing technologies to unravel the evolutionary history of Hawaiian plants and to aid in their conservation.

For the first goal, Knope is comparing how the relationship between taxonomic diversity (e.g., the number of species or genera) and ecological diversity (e.g., the number of different ways that species “make a living”) has changed over time in the oceans leading to what is observed today.

“We see today that we have more species on the planet than there has ever been and that they display a wider array of ecological strategies than ever before, and it is hypothesized that the two are necessarily coupled, because not all species can utilize the same resources and successfully co-exist,” Knope explains.

For the second goal, Knope is using next-generation DNA sequencing technology to unravel the evolutionary history and aid in the conservation of endemic Hawaiian plants. Analogous to humans using DNA to trace families’ evolutionary lineage, Knope is using a similar approach with Hawaiian plants.

“In the past, our research, and that of many others, has shown that it is difficult to study the evolutionary genetics of Hawaiian plants, in part because many have separated into different species from their common ancestor very rapidly and very recently,” he explains. “By scaling up from sequencing a handful of genes in each individual at a time to sequencing their entire genomes, often comprised of many billions of basepairs of DNA, we are starting to be able to unravel these mysteries of how our iconic Hawaiian and South Pacific plant adaptive radiations have evolved.”

Trevor Bak pictured
Tevor Bak

Knope says that despite setbacks brought by the pandemic, he has found that through flexibility and creativity, the lab continues to support budding scientists in their research and projects.

As examples of this, he notes Trevor Bak, a graduate student in the university’s tropical conservation biology and environmental science program who is working on his thesis with Knope. Bak has worked on and identified the ecological traits and functions most at risk of being lost due to extinction in marine fishes worldwide. Knope is hopeful of these studies, feeling that they may, “really help to prevent these species and their ecological roles from being lost in the current extinction crisis.”

Rebecca Webster and Maya Munstermann pictured.
Rebecca Webster and Maya Munstermann.

Knope also notes graduate student Rebecca Webster, who is carrying out her thesis through the lab on a topic closer to home. Her thesis, as Knope explains, looks into the role of climate change on Hawaiian intertidal communities. Through her study, she has found that as the ocean temperatures continue to rise to new averages and higher temperatures, the intertidal ecological communities are becoming more dissimilar to one another across the state. Her research may help the understanding of real and current events happening in our local community and local intertidal environments due to the climate crisis.

Prof. Knope also touts the work of former UH Hilo student Maya Munstermann, who graduated from the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program in 2019 and is now working on her doctorate at Florida State University. Munstermann recently published her thesis with Knope on the global ecological signature of extinction risk in terrestrial vertebrates. Her thesis, titled “A global ecological signal of extinction risk in terrestrial vertebrates,” (Conservation Biology, Oct. 20, 2021) argues for a shift in the world of conservation. Co-author Knope explains, “We argue that we need to move beyond a species-centric approach to conservation to one that considers the actual ecological functions that are most at risk of being lost to extinction”.

Knope’s extraordinary work with his students has not gone unnoticed.

In 2019, then an assistant professor of biology, Knope received the Frances Davis award for Excellence in Teaching. Nomination papers noted that “soon after arriving at UH Hilo, he 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.”

Matthew Knope pictured in blue regalia wearing a orchid lei.
At University of Hawai‘i at Hilo commencement ceremonies in May of 2019, Matthew Knope, then an assistant professor of biology, received the prestigious UH Frances Davis award for Excellence in Teaching. (Raiatea Arcuri)

Current work and moving forward

Knope, students, and lab staff are currently working on several projects regarding native Hawaiian plants.

In their article titled, “Dispersal and adaptive radiation of Bidens (Compositae) across the remote archipelagoes of Polynesia,” (Journal of Systematics and Evolution, Nov. 2020) Knope and collaborators uncover the history of dispersal and adaptive radiation of the genus Bidens across the remote archipelagoes of Polynesia. Similar to the Hawaiian silverswords and honeycreepers, Knope explains that Bidens, or ko‘oko‘olau, are one of the iconic adaptive radiations in Hawai‘i, but are also found in other archipelagoes within Polynesia as well. Adaptive radiation refers to the rapid diversification of a single evolutionary lineage into many descendent species all adapted to different ecological niches.

Also, in a new study in press at the Journal of Heredity led by Renee Bellinger, the lab has created a high-quality reference genome for all to use moving forward. Knope says that assembling this massive genome for Bidens hawaiensis, a species endemic to east Hawai‘i Island, was a Herculean effort by Bellinger.

This new reference genome will allow Knope and colleagues to move forward on three different fronts:

      • Continue to improve the understanding of the evolutionary history of the group using phylogenomics, the practice of comparing genomes through a family tree of endemic Hawaiian species.
      • Move into conservation genomics to improve knowledge on how to protect the one-third ko‘oko‘olau species that are currently threatened or endangered.
      • Work on the plants’ functional genomics, the study of how they have adapted to the array of habitats on the Hawaiian islands.

Knope is proud of his team and the work being done in the Knope Evolutionary Ecology Lab despite the setbacks they have faced in the last few years.

“COVID-19 has been a big challenge to say the least,” he explains. “Many projects in the lab had to change direction, with some types of research simply not being possible.”

He shares that the lab is able to move in new directions through creativity and flexibility, all while staying on an appropriate timeline for projects. The lab has done an excellent job with this task, with nine publications coming out between 2020 and 2022.

Knope has a positive outlook going forward. He shares that he is grateful for the university community and wants to continue to positively impact the people he works with and teaches in any way he can. “There are so many amazing people in our community here at UH Hilo. They inspire me everyday.”

Now with tenure under his belt, the evolutionary biologist is taking on more professional leadership roles where he aims to continue giving back through his work and the work of his lab.

“I feel that the best gift you can give yourself is to do a little good every day,” he says.

Related stories

Study headed by UH Hilo evolutionary ecologist shows surprising findings about animal diversity and extinction

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

By Elena Espinoza, an English major also earning a certificate in teaching English as a second language.

This post was update on Feb. 1, 2022 to clarify findings of the studies.