Maui News

UH Hilo Research Finds Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death Linked to Hoofed Animals

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  • Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park crew set up fence to protect the forestʻs ‘ōhi‘a trees from hooved animals that can exacerbate a fungal disease. Photo Courtesy: National Park Service
  • Aerial image shows the telltale sign of rapid ‘ōhi‘a death: browning of affected tree crowns. Photo Courtesy: UH Hilo
  • Custom imaging developed for helicopter mapping operations in Hawai‘i. Photo Courtesy: UH Hilo
  • ‘Ōhi‘a trees affected by rapid fungal disease are surrounded by healthy trees. Photo Courtesy: National Park Service

The spread of a fungal disease killing off hundreds of thousands of mature ‘ōhi‘a trees on Hawai‘i Island could be exacerbated by the presence of animals with hooves, according to a new collaborative study led by a geographer at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.

The lead investigator of the study is Ryan Perroy, an associate professor of geography and environmental science at UH Hilo. He specializes in remote sensing and was integral in obtaining aerial imagery to detect ‘ōhi‘a mortality at an individual tree level.

The study’s co-authors from the National Park Service, US Forest Service and US Department of Agriculture collected field samples and conducted laboratory testing using data from impacted areas within Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park (HAVO) and the Laupāhoehoe Forest Reserve.

The spatial patterns of ‘ōhi‘a mortality observed across all four sites included in the study show significant differences in areas with and without ungulates (hooved animals), suggesting that ungulate exclusion is an effective management tool to lessen the impacts of rapid ʻōhiʻa death (ROD) in forested areas in Hawai‘i.


“The results from this work show us that the impacts of ROD can vary across the landscape,” Perroy said. “We hope this information can be useful in managing and caring for our native forests.”

Perroy worked alongside a Hawaiʻi Island-based research team, which includes Timo Sullivan and Daniel Duda from the UH Hilo Data Visualization Laboratory; David Benitez, an ecologist at HAVO; Flint Hughes, an ecologist at the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry; and Lisa Keith, Eva Brill and Karma Kissinger, plant pathologists from the Daniel K. Inouye US Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center.

The researchers discovered the number of suspected ROD trees in unfenced areas were significantly higher (more than 50 times greater for one location) than those found in fenced areas that prevent hoofed animal access.

ROD was first discovered on Hawai‘i Island in 2014 and has since obliterated hundreds of acres of once sprawling ʻōhiʻa. It is also found on Kaua‘i, Maui and O‘ahu. The deadly disease is caused by two invasive fungi, Ceratocystis huliohia and Ceratocystis lukuohia, and, if left unstopped, could irreversibly change Hawaiian ecosystems and cultural traditions by diminishing the keystone native tree in Hawaiian forests.


Based on collected aerial imagery, the researchers developed a rating system based on tree canopy condition to identify ‘ōhi‘a that may be infected. They developed a custom imaging system for helicopter mapping operations, which enables a much wider surveying scale. 

Using this system, the researchers quickly generate and share suspect tree candidate locations with partner agencies to rapidly detect new mortality outbreaks and prioritize field sampling efforts. The studies revealed disparities between sites, illustrating challenges to definitively determine the cause of ‘ōhi‘a mortality from aerial imagery alone. The integrated approach of imagery, field sampling and lab work proved better at effectively discerning causative factors.

This research identifies effective strategies for Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park and other protected areas, where study co-author Benitez considers ROD to be a top threat to native forests and ecosystems.

“The focal sites include forests near the summit of Kīlauea, including Nāhuku and the ʻŌlaʻa Tract rainforests and the Kahuku Unit,” Benitez said. “We are very excited about this collaborative research, and the resulting technologies such as a safer and more cost effective airborne mapping system which can pinpoint ROD outbreaks across vast areas on all Hawaiian Islands.”


An unexpected event at one of the study sites showed the impact feral pigs caused after they breached a fenced area. Suspect ROD tree densities in the area rose from practically none to nearly three trees per hectare (nearly 2.5 acres) highlighting the need for ungulate control.

“There are lots of remaining questions that still need to be addressed relating to ungulate species-specific behavior and impacts (pigs vs. goats vs. sheep vs. cattle), differences between domesticated and feral animals, and lots of remaining questions regarding non-ungulate factors we think play a role in ‘ōhi‘a mortality, from boring beetles to storm events,” Perroy said. 

The study also illustrates the importance of removing infected trees to suppress ‘ōhi‘a mortality levels across affected regions.


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