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person surrounded by rocks in a lava tube
Assistant Professor Rebecca Chong explores lava tube caves on Hawaiʻi Island. (Photo credit: Megan Porter)

A four-year, $1.29-million grant from the National Science Foundation has been awarded to University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa researchers from the School of Life Sciences to study subterranean biodiversity associated with lava tubes in Hawaiʻi. The grant was awarded to Assistant Professor Rebecca Chong and Associate Professor Megan Porter, and collaborator Professor Annette Engel at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

three legged bug on a rock
Assistant Professor Rebecca Chong and collaborators have documented numerous species that only live underground in lava tubes and are new to science, including the new “thread-legged bug.” (Photo credit: Michael E. Slay)

On Hawaiʻi Island, continuous volcanic activities over hundreds of thousands of years created subterranean habitats, known as lava tubes, that are of different geologic ages. The lava tubes are occupied by communities of cave-adapted arthropod species, such as planthoppers, millipedes and spiders, which are sustained by the roots of the native ʻōhiʻa tree.

The lava tube species on Hawaiʻi Island are found nowhere else in the world. Ecological threats facing lava tubes are similar to threats facing native forests and other Hawaiian ecosystems, including urbanization, climate change, biodiversity loss, and the spread of invasive species and pathogens, such as Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death.

beetle on a rock
Newly-described cave beetle species Paratachys aaa occupies the dark zone of recently developed lava tube caves on Hawaiʻi Island. (Photo credit: Michael E. Slay)

Recent exploration of lava tubes on Hawaiʻi Island by the team and their collaborators has already uncovered species that are new to science and new distributions for species underground in different lava flows across the island.

“With significant potential to discover more subterranean diversity, we will conduct systematic biological surveys of lava tubes on Hawaiʻi Island to compare arthropod species diversity and ecological roles across different volcanoes,” said Chong. “Our research will uncover important ecosystem-level feedbacks between the surface and subsurface that explain how Hawaiian subterranean ecosystems form.”

person crouching down in a lava tube
Associate Professor Megan Porter searches for cave-adapted arthropods in a lava tube cave on Hawaiʻi Island. (Photo credit: Michael E. Slay)

The project will result in several major advancements, including documenting and describing new species occurrences and distributions across the island, obtaining new ecological data on the contributions of ʻōhiʻa to the lava tube ecosystems, and generating new genetic data for understanding the relationships among different cave species. These findings serve as significant breakthroughs for Hawaiʻi, where island biodiversity loss has reached unprecedented levels.

The project also has important outreach goals that include educating both the next generation of diverse scientists and the public about integrative biological research, including collaborative training for students and researchers, year-long cross-disciplinary research internships for undergraduate students, and public outreach programs for the local community with researchers at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum.

This work is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), one of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

roots hanging down from the top of the lava tube
Cave-adapted arthropod species are sustained by the roots of the native ʻōhiʻa tree. (Photo credit: Annette Engel)
small bug on a rock
The cave-adapted planthopper species Oliarus polyphemus is only found in lava tubes on Hawaiʻi Island. (Photo credit: Michael E. Slay)
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