$1.29 million grant to study the biodiversity of lava tubes on the island of Hawaii

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Assistant Professor Rebecca Chong explores lava tube caves on Hawaii Isle. (Photo credit: Megan Porter)

A four-year, $1.29 million grant from the national science foundation was awarded to the University of Hawaii in Mānoa by researchers from School of Life Sciences study the subterranean biodiversity associated with lava tubes in Hawaii. The scholarship was awarded to Assistant Professor Rebecca Chong and associate professor Megan Porterand Contributing Professor Annette Engel at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

Three-legged stink bug on a rock
Assistant Professor Rebecca Chong and her collaborators have documented many species that live only underground in lava tubes and are new to science, including the new “spin-legged bug.” (Photo credit: Michael E. Slay)

At Hawaii Continuous island volcanic activities over hundreds of thousands of years have created subterranean habitats, known as lava tubes, which are of different geological ages. The lava tubes are occupied by communities of cave-adapted arthropod species, such as leafhoppers, centipedes, and spiders, which are supported by the roots of the native ʻōhiʻa tree.

The species of lava tubes on Hawaii Island is 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, loss of biodiversity, and the spread of invasive species and pests. pathogens, such as Rapid ‘Ōhi’a Death.

beetle on a rock
Newly described cave beetle species Paratachys aaa occupies the dark area of ​​the recently developed lava tube caves on Hawaii Isle. (Photo credit: Michael E. Slay)

Recent exploration of lava tubes on Hawaii Island by the team and their collaborators has already discovered species new to science and new distributions for subterranean species in different lava flows across the island.

“With significant potential for discovering more subterranean diversity, we will conduct systematic biological studies of lava tubes on Hawaii Island to compare the diversity of arthropod species and their ecological roles on different volcanoes,” Chong said. “Our research will uncover important ecosystem-level feedbacks between the surface and subsurface that explain the formation of Hawaiian subterranean ecosystems.”

person squatting in a lava tube
Associate Professor Megan Porter searches for cave-adapted arthropods in a lava tube cave on Hawaii Isle. (Photo credit: Michael E. Slay)

The project will result in several major advances, including documenting and describing new species occurrences and distributions across the island, obtaining new ecological data on the contributions of ʻōhiʻa to lava tube ecosystems and generate new genetic data to understand the relationships between different cave species. These findings are important breakthroughs for Hawaiiwhere island biodiversity loss has reached unprecedented levels.

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, research internships year-long interdisciplinary courses for undergraduates and public outreach programs for the local community with researchers from the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum.

This work is an example of uh Mānoa’s goal of Research Excellence: Advancing the Enterprise of Research and Creative Work (PDF), one of the four objectives identified in the Strategic Plan 2015-2025 (PDF), updated December 2020.

roots hanging from the top of the lava tube
Cave-adapted arthropod species are supported by the roots of the native ʻōhiʻa tree. (Photo credit: Annette Engel)
small insect on a rock
The species of leafhopper adapted to caves Oliarus polyphemus can only be found in lava tubes on Hawaii Isle. (Photo credit: Michael E. Slay)
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