Maui News

$1.29M grant awarded to UH to study lava tube biodiversity in Hawaiʻi

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Cave-adapted arthropod species are sustained by roots of the ‘ōhiʻa tree. Credit: Annette Engel via University of Hawaiʻi.

A four-year, $1.29-million grant from the National Science Foundation was awarded to the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa for the study of subterranean biodiversity associated with lava tubes in Hawaiʻi.

The grant was awarded to Assistant Professor Rebecca Chong and Associate Professor Megan Porter from the School of Life Sciences, and collaborator Professor Annette Engel at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

Assistant Professor Rebecca Chong explores lava tube caves on Hawai‘i Island. Credit: Megan Porter via University of Hawaiʻi

On Hawaiʻi Island, continuous volcanic activities over hundreds of thousands of years created subterranean lava tubes habitats of varying geological age. The lava tubes are occupied by communities of cave-adapted arthropod species, such as planthoppers, millipedes and spiders, which are sustained by the roots of the native ʻōhiʻa tree.

“The lava tube species on Hawaiʻi Island are found nowhere else in the world. Ecological threats facing lava tubes are similar to threats facing native forests and other Hawaiian ecosystems, including urbanization, climate change, biodiversity loss, and the spread of invasive species and pathogens, such as Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death,” according to UH researchers.

“With significant potential to discover more subterranean diversity, we will conduct systematic biological surveys of lava tubes on Hawaiʻi Island to compare arthropod species diversity and ecological roles across different volcanoes,” said Chong. “Our research will uncover important ecosystem-level feedbacks between the surface and subsurface that explain how Hawaiian subterranean ecosystems form.”

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UH reports the project will result in several major advancements, including documenting and describing new species occurrences and distributions across the island, obtaining new ecological data on the contributions of ʻōhiʻa to the lava tube ecosystems, and generating new genetic data for understanding the relationships among different cave species.

Experts documented species only living underground in lava tubes, including the “thread-legged bug.” PC: University of Hawaiʻi
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“These findings serve as significant breakthroughs for Hawaiʻi, where island biodiversity loss has reached unprecedented levels,” according to UH.

The project also has important outreach goals that include educating both the next generation of diverse scientists and the public about integrative biological research, including collaborative training for students and researchers, year-long cross-disciplinary research internships for undergraduate students, and public outreach programs for the local community with researchers at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum.

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