Graduate Students Help Protect Hawaiian Wetlands

Grad students' work supported by the university's Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
David Duffy, (808) 956-8218
Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit
Kristen Cabral, (808) 956-5039
Public Information Officer
Posted: Apr 15, 2003

A trio of graduate students in the botany and zoology departments of the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa have begun hands-on efforts to save Oʻahu‘s remaining natural wetlands and the endangered bird species that live in them.

Karen Brimacombe, a graduate student in the Department of Botany, has received a two-year grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to analyze which Native Hawaiian plants can be grown in wetlands in place of mainland species traditionally used by wildlife biologists. The idea is to find species that out-compete alien invasive species and that can be eaten by endangered Hawaiian water birds such as the Hawaiian Coot and Moorhen. Working at the Campbell National Wildlife Refuge in Pearl Harbor, she has spent countless hours weeding and hauling water under the hot sun, then carefully measuring the growth and flowering of her plants.

Graduate student Alex Handler in the Department of Zoology has begun to look at the genetics of Hawaiian Moorhens throughout the Hawaiian Islands and across the Pacific to see how many populations of this endangered group exist and need protection. His genetic studies require that he catch birds and clip the tips of a few feathers, which can be analyzed for DNA back in the lab. He has experienced some interesting obstacles along the way. For instance, in Palau, he had not counted on the salt-water crocodiles sharing the ponds with his birds — "the crocodiles bit through my bird nets ... I actually ended up catching a 4-foot crocodile..."

Most recently, graduate student Christine McGuire in the Department of Botany has received funding from the state through a federal grant to work on wetlands. Initially, she assisted in the organization of the first statewide meeting on wetlands, which was attended by more than 100 people. Her own research project will focus on Hamakua Marsh in Kailua to determine if native plants can help minimize silt runoff.

All three students are funded through cooperative projects of government agencies with the university‘s Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit (PCSU), which brings in about $12 million a year in private and federal funds to support conservation and restoration, as well as environmental education. In times of fiscal austerity, UH students supported by PCSU can help agencies continue their missions without expanding their staffing. PCSU has also been responsible for the Emergency Environmental Work Force that put the unemployed to work after the 9/11 attacks and helped stop the dengue outbreaks on Maui and Oʻahu.

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