Two male Drosophila cyrtoloma fruit flies fighting for a spot on a log in Maui’s rain forest.
PHOTO: Karl Magnacca

Hawaii’s Bugs May Hold Key to Biodiversity

To Rosemary Gillespie, the Hawaiian Islands are a unique and ongoing series of evolutionary and ecological experiments. As each volcano rises above the waves, it is colonized by life from neighboring volcanoes and develops its own flora and fauna. A new $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to the University of California, Berkeley, will allow Gillespie and her colleagues to focus on the islands’ insect and spider life in search of clues to how animals explore and settle into new niches, leading to increased biodiversity over time.

“One of the most puzzling features of the high diversity of species on remote islands is that these species almost certainly arose from one or very few colonizers,” said Gillespie, director of UC Berkeley’s Essig Museum of Entomology. “How was variability regained after such genetic bottlenecks, and how did it give rise to ecological diversity?”

The researchers’ findings will answer questions not only about how communities have come together over the 700,000-year life span of the Big Island, but also about the impacts of biological invasions. And as the Hawaiian ecosystem adapts to a changing climate and a growing human population, the research will help develop successful conservation management practices and more effective programs in restoration ecology. The grant is one of 14 totaling $26.4 million announced this fall by NSF’s Dimensions of Biodiversity program. It ties into the Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology (BiGCB), which looks at how biodiversity has responded to environmental change in the past, in order to improve models for predicting the consequences of future changes.

Coprincipal investigators at UC Berkeley are John Harte, professor of energy and resources, who will test theoretical models in ecology describing the numbers and types of animals in a given habitat; Patrick O’Grady, associate professor of environmental science, policy, and management and an expert on Drosophila flies; Rasmus Nielsen, professor of integrative biology, who will use molecular tools to look at how populations have expanded, contracted, diverged, or otherwise changed over the lifetime of the island; and Neo Martinez, an affiliate of the Energy and Resources Group (ERG), who will use new theoretical tools to explore how interactions between species change as a community develops.

CENTENARIAN: Friends and colleagues of Woodrow (“Woody”) Middlekauff, of the former Department of Entomological Sciences, celebrated the professor emeritus’s 100th birthday at the Essig Museum’s Darwin Day event February 12. Middlekauff’s specialty was insect systematics, and he also served as an associate dean in the College of Natural Resources.

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