Extinction Countdown

Extinction Countdown

News and research about endangered species from around the world

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


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

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

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