ATHENS, Ohio – Tourists flock to Hawaii for its lush landscape of breathtaking flora, but this summer the most remote island ecosystem in the world is serving as a living laboratory for a pair of botanists examining the origins and evolution of plant life on Earth.
The Ohio University botanists, accompanied by four students, are conducting studies on three Hawaiian islands in a journey that will end this week. But while their travels are coming to a close, the real work is just beginning, research that could aid in nature conservation while also painting a clearer picture of Hawaiian plant diversity.
"We chose the Hawaiian Islands because the archipelago is exemplary of oceanic island systems around the world, and because we have ongoing research on plant groups there," said Ballard, an assistant professor of environmental and plant biology and one of two leaders of the university's Global Studies in Plant Biology program.
The group spent their first two weeks conducting field research on Oahu and Kauai and are spending their last week on the big island of Hawaii, collecting plant samples in coastal areas, mountains, swamps, dry and wet forests and areas marked by volcanic lava. Their dirty and painstaking work is revealing an ecosystem invaded by foreign plant species, a problem Ballard said has been underestimated in the past.
"You have to hike far into the forest to find areas where there aren't many invasive plants," he says. "The vast majority of the landscape has been altered from its native condition." Ballard concedes that any area inhabited by humans will show an ecological impact – Ohio, for example, only has 2 percent of its pre-settlement vegetation – but he argues that Hawaii appears to be particularly under siege. Also, there is more to lose here – about 92 percent of the native land plants can't be found anywhere else in the world.
Ballard, an international expert on violets whose work is funded by the National Science Foundation, is collecting DNA samples of the flowering herb to determine what varieties have taken a foothold on the islands, and whether they threaten to wipe out other violets, including rare and federally endangered varieties.
It's important to study and conserve rare plants not only because they provide information about the history and evolution of their species, he said, but as they may have other key uses.
"We don't know whether some of these will provide materials useful for us – they could be edible or have medicinal properties," said Ballard, who obtained permission from the Hawaiian government to collect plant samples for study. "For example, the rose periwinkle was endangered, but we now know it can treat childhood leukemia."
Morgan Vis, an assistant professor of environmental and plant biology, is a co-leader of this expedition and the Global Studies program. Vis is examining how freshwater algae has colonized in low and high-altitude areas of Hawaii. Algae plays a key role in the aquatic food chain, serving as a vital nutrient for fish and other invertebrates.
"One stream we sampled in Kauai had nine different macroalgae," she says. "That's a high level of diversity for any stream. And this is an oceanic island, which means it's difficult for a freshwater organism to make it here. This suggests that maybe freshwater algae are dispersed more easily than we thought they would be."
Vis's goal is to study how algae populations on different continents are related, and to determine if there are unique varieties of the plant that should be conserved.
"I'm trying to go to places in the world where not a lot is known about the algae flora," Vis said. "Very little of the world has been covered in detail."
The expedition also will serve as a key educational experience for Ohio University students of plant biology. The Global Studies in Plant Biology program was launched in 2000 to give students first-hand experience identifying and collecting plants in the field, a major component of botany research. Each seminar focuses on a different area of the world. The scientists and students first traveled to the Bolivian Andes in November, and will return to South America later this year and in 2002 to examine flora in Brazil and French Guiana.
Four Ohio University students are accompanying the researchers to Hawaii: undergraduates Carolyn Reilly of Athens and Michelle Van Atta of Ravenna; and graduate students Min Feng of Beijing, China, and Robert Weinfurtner, a science teacher at Athens High School.
More information about the Global Studies in Plant Biology program is available online at: http://oak.cats.ohiou.edu/~ballardh/globalstudies/index.html. Follow the research team in Hawaii at http://www.ohiou.edu/researchnews.
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