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Engel Part of NSF Grant to Study Lava Tube Biodiversity on Hawaiʻi Island

chong explores lava tubesAnnette Engel, professor in the UT Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences is part of team studying lava tube biodiversity on Hawai’I Island thanks to a four-year, $1.29-million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which was awarded to University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa researchers from the School of Life Sciences to study subterranean biodiversity associated with lava tubes in Hawaiʻi. The grant was awarded to Assistant Professor Rebecca Chong and Associate Professor Megan Porter.

On Hawaiʻi Island, continuous volcanic activities over hundreds of thousands of years created subterranean habitats, known as lava tubes, that are of different geologic ages. 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 ‘ōhiʻa tree. 

The lava tube species on Hawai‘i 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 'Ōhi'a Death. 

Recent exploration of lava tubes on Hawai‘i Island by the team and their collaborators has already uncovered species that are new to science and new distributions for species underground in different lava flows across the island. 

“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.”

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 ‘ōhiʻa to the lava tube ecosystems, and generating new genetic data for understanding the relationships among different cave species. These findings serve as significant breakthroughs for Hawaiʻi, where 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, 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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