Scientists look to Hawaii’s bugs for clues to origins of biodiversity

November 26, 2012
By Robert Sanders, UC Berkeley Media Relations

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 increasing 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?”

Their findings will answer questions not only about how communities have come together over the 700,000-year-lifespan 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 on Global Change Biology (BiGCB), which looks at how biodiversity has responded in the past to environmental change in order to improve models for predicting the consequences of future environmental change.

Read the full story on the UC Berkeley News Center.