National Science Foundation grant awarded to professor

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Posted: Feb 4, 2010

Dr. Robert Cowie holding a shell up to his face.
Dr. Robert Cowie holding a shell up to his face.
A grant of $499,999 has been awarded by the National Science Foundation to Dr. Robert Cowie of UH Mānoa’s Center for Conservation Research, part of the Pacific Biosciences Research Center.
The grant supports a project to advance understanding of the biodiversity of “apple snails.”  Led by Dr. Cowie, it involves a team of scientists from Hawaiʻi, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Instituto Oswaldo Cruz in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The ability to assess the severity of the “biodiversity crisis” hinges on addressing the “taxonomic impediment”—the serious lack of experts able to identify and classify organisms. This impediment is felt most seriously in the largest groups of animals on earth, the invertebrates, and the mollusks in particular. The primary goal of the project is to assess the diversity and identities of freshwater snails in the family Ampullariidae (“apple snails”).
These snails are important components of many ecosystems: one species native to the USA is the key food of the endangered Everglades kite. But introduced invasive apple snails are potentially serious pests in both natural and wetland agricultural ecosystems, as well as being potential vectors of infectious disease parasites. Here in Hawaiʻi, introduced apple snails have become a major pest of taro, and—introduced widely in south-east Asia—they have become the number one pest of rice.
More than 250 species of apple snails have been described, but how many of these are real species, as well as their true identities, is unknown. Knowledge of their diversity and distributions is thus extremely confused and studies of their ecology, behavior, pest status and control are confounded. The project will resolve this confusion by studying the snails’ shells, internal anatomy, DNA sequences and behavior.
Although understanding the identities, relationships and origins of these invasive species is of great importance, the lack of taxonomic expertise in such groups of snails is a serious problem globally. A major focus of the project is therefore the training of young scientists both in the United States and in South America (the origin of the pest species) in order to build this needed expertise, as well as providing tools to assist others such as agricultural and customs inspection officials to correctly identify these potentially invasive species.