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UH Mānoa receives $1.29M grant to study lava tube biodiversity

Cave-adapted arthropod species are sustained by roots of the ‘ōhiʻa tree.
Annette Engel
UH News
Cave-adapted arthropod species are sustained by roots of the ‘ōhiʻa tree.

The National Science Foundation has granted a research team at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa $1.29 million to study life in lava tubes.

Lava tubes are underground passageways created by past lava flows. Hawaiʻi Island’s lava tubes are abundant with life, including species of millipedes and spiders found nowhere else in the world.

The grant was awarded to Assistant Professor Rebecca Chong and Associate Professor Megan Porter in the School of Life Sciences.

Porter explains, "As soon as lava tubes form, these really unique animals can move in and so we’re aiming to understand this really important habitat that is still actively being formed."

The project will study how ecological threats on the surface affect life underground.

For example, ʻōhiʻa trees sustain life in Hawaiian lava tubes by trickling down water into the caves. Chong and Porter's team will study how rapid ʻōhiʻa death may affect cave biodiversity.

“Collectively, our ecological, evolutionary and genetic data that we collect through this research will serve as significant breakthroughs for Hawai‘i where biodiversity loss is of critical concern,” says Chong.

The team will also explore Hawaiʻi Island’s lava tubes to hopefully find new bug species.

Project leaders also plan to host research internships for undergraduate students.

Zoe Dym was a news producer at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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