Science Profiles at UH Hilo: Jolene Sutton

The quest to save Hawaiʻi’s native birds

Science and Travel Writer and Photographer Alyssa Grace

As most science professors will tell their students, UH Hilo has a significant amount of resources at its disposal because of its special location. The Big Island itself has nearly all the climates zones that exist on Earth, an active volcano and the tallest mountain in the world when measured from the sea floor. Ke Kalahea has decided to feature one professor’s research in particular: biology professor Jolene Sutton, and her work in preserving some of Hawaiʻi’s most unique fauna.

Sutton is an assistant professor in the biology department of UH Hilo. She currently teaches one genetics class and its accompanying lab. In the meantime, she handles two different projects in her lab focused on improving conservation efforts of native Hawaiian birds. “Together with our collaborators, our group has identified that two areas that we believe are important for protecting Hawaiian birds: 1) understanding the genetics of rare species, and 2) reducing the spread of the diseases that are causing their decline,” Sutton said.

One of the lab’s projects works directly with the ‘Alalā, or the Hawaiian crow. “We use conservation genomics to help the recovery of one of Hawaiʻi’s rarest endemic birds, the ‘Alalā,” Sutton said. The ‘Alalā has been extinct in the wild since 2002 and currently has a very small population at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Volcano. Without conservation efforts other Hawaiian bird populations will easily decrease dramatically over the years and eventually become extinct as well.

“We are determining how much genetic diversity the [‘Alalā] species had historically compared to what it has now that it is extinct in the wild. We are also collecting genomic information to obtain accurate estimates of relatedness among individuals in the current population,” Sutton said. “These kinds of data will help us make management recommendations, such as choosing which birds to pair in breeding facilities to try to have the healthiest offspring, and choosing the most suitable individuals to release back into the wild.”

The second project done by Sutton’s lab affects mosquitoes and therefore also indirectly affects the native Hawaiian birds. “We are developing techniques to control mosquitoes, and the diseases they spread to birds,” Sutton said. Mosquitoes are not native to Hawaii. Since they were introduced in 1826, mosquitoes have killed off many native bird populations by carrying diseases such as avian malaria and avian pox. Native birds are especially susceptible to these diseases because of their limited exposure after living in isolation on the Hawaiian islands for hundreds of years.

To prevent further destruction of the native bird population, Sutton’s lab is making it harder for southern house mosquitoes (Culex quinquefasciatus) to reproduce by using what she calls a “technique like ‘birth control for mosquitoes.’” This technique has been successful in other places and uses a type of bacteria, called Wolbachia, which naturally occurs in many insect species. A similar technique using Wolbachia strains has already been used to reduce fruit fly populations here in Hawaiʻi.

“First we use an antibiotic to clear the bacteria from lab-reared southern house mosquitoes, and then we give our mosquitoes a different strain of Wolbachia that we isolate from another species of insect,” Sutton said. “When male mosquitoes carrying one strain of Wolbachia mate with females that have a different strain, they can’t reproduce normally.” If there is less offspring then there are no more mosquitoes to carry on the avian malaria and avian pox.

Sutton doesn't do all this work on her own of course. She has students at many levels helping her, including undergraduate and graduate students. From isolating DNA, analyzing data, running experiments and maintaining mosquito colonies, students perform many different tasks.

“Recently, our hard-working team reached a significant milestone by clearing the Wolbachia from some mosquito colonies in the lab! We are now preparing to introduce a different strain to these particular mosquitoes,” Sutton said.

Both projects have also had a lot of help from various organizations such as UH Mānoa, Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. “These projects are collaborations with several local, national, and international partners,” Sutton said.

“The types of research we do can help answer many conservation management questions, and it is important to make the best decisions possible based on good information,” Sutton said. Conservation work is important because without it many more species of birds could be lost forever. However, Sutton is optimistic. “[Conservation Genetics] is an incredibly exciting and fascinating field to be in, as it uses cutting edge technologies to help protect threatened species around the world,” Sutton said. “One day our mosquito research could potentially be adapted to reduce the spread of mosquito-borne human diseases as well.”

Sutton’s own message to students is this, “UH Hilo is ideally situated for the types of research that our lab focuses on, and there are many research opportunities for students within the university, right here on Hawaiʻi Island. Time spent at UH Hilo is a great opportunity to find something that you are passionate about!”