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Hawaii admits possible defeat to invasive species, researches “hybrid ecosystem” instead

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The beautiful yet isolated Hawaiian islands hold a bounty of biodiversity, but many of those unique species are rapidly disappearing. The fast growth of invasive species is pushing native Hawaiian species, many of which are found nowhere else on the globe, into extinction. In fact, hundreds of Hawaiian plant species, along with dozens of mammals and insects and other species, already appear on the U.S. endangered species list.

Much of the landscape of Hawaii, especially lowlands near agriculture and cities, has already been transformed, with native species nowhere to be found.

“Invasive species are so prevalent. You’re hand weeding, trying to eliminate them and aren’t able to keep up with them. It feels like you’re fighting a losing battle,” Susan Cordell, research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, said recently in a prepared statement. “Restoring these lowland tropical forests to a historic native state is not financially or physically feasible.”

Invasive species are non-native species that disperse widely, rapidly, and at the expense of native species in an ecosystem. Not all non-native species become invasive, but those that do pose serious threats to all manner of plants, insects and animals.

So how can Hawaii preserve its biodiversity in the face of this ever-expanding enemy? A new idea is to try developing “hybrid ecosystems” – native and non-native species mixed in a way that benefits native biodiversity.

Research into these hybrid ecosystems will begin in April 2011 with a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP). It will be conducted in collaboration with Stanford University, the University of Hawaii at Hilo and the Forest Service’s Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry. The 200-acre research project will take place on the Hawaii Army National Guard Keaukaha Military Reservation.

The 14-month first phase of the project will analyze traits of both native and non-native species. After that, a second phase will feature test plantings of several combinations of native and non-native species. The full project is expected to take five years.

Sam Gon, a senior scientist and cultural adviser with the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, told The Maui News that reintroducing native species to areas where they had previously disappeared is a challenging task. “Sometimes you find that they actually hold their own pretty well as long as you don’t have things like fire or other major disturbances. And other times you find the moment you stop caring for them and actively removing their competitors, within the course of five years or so, you barely know that the place had native plants at all.”

Last year, Hawaii rolled out a program to pay farmers to plant native species, a 20-year, $67-million program that would help plant species as well as native birds, insects, coral and other species.

Hawaii has 380 species on the U.S. endangered species list—more than any other state—with dozens more awaiting protection.

Photo: The ma o hau hele (Hibiscus brackenridgei), the endangered state flower of Hawaii. Via Wikipedia

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  1. 1. Ensoh 12:05 pm 12/2/2010

    So what is a Hawaiian "native species?" Most of the flora there was imported by ancient immigrants from Tahiti, Samoa and other areas of the Pacific Rim, as well as by more recent immigrants from China, Japan and the Philippines, and European agricultural entrepreneurs. The only truly indigenous area left as of the mid-1900′s was in a national park on the island of Hawaii itself. Not to knock the natural beauty there, but biodiversity and hybridization of the ecosystem is hardly new in Polynesia, and change has been a constant in the 50th state.

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  2. 2. sd 12:08 pm 12/2/2010

    Yeah, I wonder why — just this month they delivered the Christmas trees from the Pacific Northwest and found traces of slugs, salamanders, and tree frogs. The inspectors take a sampling of the trees from each container.

    Now, I’m a firm believer in using statistics to modify policy, but these statistics will change from year to year. So, presuming they open the first container and operate off of past knowledge, they are not gathering new data to update said knowledge base. This begs the question — how and when did they decide that checking a few trees will ensure clean shipments?

    Living in Hawaii, I would suggest the answer lies in the economics/union agreements and not in the best support of ecological protection.

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  3. 3. sd 12:31 pm 12/2/2010

    I know you’re being facetious, but "native species" are defined as those flora/fauna pre-contact — anything that was there before the first Polynesians arrived. The English first made it to Hawaii in the 16th century, so before then is the best answer. :) Most accounts based off of the interviews of the natives are pretty scattered (there might not have been a translation for "hey brah" at the time :D )

    Just to reiterate some basic, observable macro evolution principles, the "native species" were those that had adapted to the islands without the mainland competition. Any introduction of new species to this results in new competition — most of the "native species" are too specialized and not very competitive and die out. Others do fine. It’s usually dependent upon the scarcity of the base living environment for that particular species.

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  4. 4. psuforever1 1:00 pm 12/2/2010

    I really don’t know what species this article refers to since that information is not given. But please correct me if I’m mistaken, but I was taught that all life evolved in competition with all other species and those that best adapted to their eco-environment survived and pushed out the less successful. Isn’t this the nature of evolution and the survival of the species? How species arrive in an environment over billions of years is debatable and problematic. It seems to me that our ability to judge suitability to an ecosystem is more dependent on our commercial values and limited scope.

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  5. 5. Quinn the Eskimo 11:06 pm 12/2/2010

    Howlies. Can’t clear them out, either.

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  6. 6. Grasshopper1 10:28 pm 12/3/2010

    It’s just pitiful that some businesses post advertisements on a serious scientific website. Why can’t they make regular ads?
    Anyway, concerning the article. How can mixing native and non-native species together in an ecosystem helping to bring back Hawaii’s native species? What people should be doing is preserving land, not making "hybrid ecosystems".

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  7. 7. outsidethebox 7:26 pm 12/4/2010

    A better question than whether we should keep invasive species out but rather can we? The real answer is an economic one. If the economic incentive one is large enough (like keeping the brown tree snake out of Hawaii) is great enough then it is possible – otherwise not. If you look at human civilization as a whole you will realize that eventually species will spread throughout the world at a speed never seen before.

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  8. 8. biopsychica 8:59 am 12/5/2010

    … hahahaha, daisyhypothese ore alienhypofyse. To be read on my website biopsychica, Albert …

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  9. 9. Grasshopper1 3:55 pm 12/5/2010

    @ biopscychica:

    What? If you have something to say, use regular English, please.

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  10. 10. Bothrops 1:24 am 02/11/2011

    not really, there is lots of diversity left, most in the uplands, but also even in dry forest lowlands. It is not just in one park. Conservation efforts have been so underfunded compared to the mainland or the Amazon and the media ignore Hawaii because of the lack of terrestrial charismatic megafauna, so things appear worse than they are. They aren’t great but there is a lot of biodiversity left i them thar hills.

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