Our project with the Smithsonian’s Global Genome Initiative

Blog and photos by UH Hilo TCBES graduate student Jeff Stallman

The Smithsonian's Global Genome Initiative (GGI) goal is to collect at least one species from half of the genera (estimated 160,000 -200,000) on Earth by 2020.  We are looking forward to helping them towards their goal, while learning how to make quality museum vouchers of plant species, seeing a slice of Hawaiʻi’s unique flora, exploring the island, and hopefully answering some of our own conservation and evolutionary questions about Hawaiian plants along the way.

 Tara Myers and Matt Knope cross a fence to a protected population of  Dubautia plantaginea

Tara Myers and Matt Knope cross a fence to a protected population of Dubautia plantaginea

We are collecting members of the Compositae (daisy family or Asteraceae) on Hawaiʻi Island. The Compositae are the world’s second largest family of flowering plants—and Hawaiʻi’s—represented in Hawaiʻi by 91 native species.  The Compositae contain some of Hawaiʻi’s most well-known plants, the Silverswords and Bidens, which are famous examples of adaptive radiation (the rapid diversification of species in a single lineage to fill many ecological roles).  Species grow in a wide variety of habitats from sea level to the tops of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, exhibit unique growth forms, and range from highly abundant to critically endangered with less than 100 individual plants left in the world.

Our first collection was Dubautia plantaginea subspecies plantaginea, a species that is present on most of the main Hawaiian Islands (excluding Niʻihau and Kohoʻolawe), but only found in the Kohala region of Hawaiʻi Island.  It grows in mesic (moderate moisture) to wet conditions, and is most common in windward gulches in Kohala which are difficult to access. To avoid helicopter travel, we sampled from an outplanted mesic population in the Koaiʻa Corrdior on the leeward side of Kohala Mountain. Although wild individuals were nearby, we wanted to capture an inflorescence for our vouchers, and only outplanted individuals were flowering.

  Dubautia plantaginea

Dubautia plantaginea

D. plantaginea is easily identifiable on Hawaiʻi Island by its woody, tree-like growth form, opposite, lanceolate, serrated leaves, and inflorescence characteristic of the aster family (false involucre, heads of many florets, achenes).  Different subspecies occur on Maui and Kauaʻi.

  Dubautia plantaginea

Dubautia plantaginea

With much of the legwork out of the way (supplies and permits), collecting will begin in earnest, and this blog will see regular updates.  Discussion will involve voucher collection, the Compositae, and various aspects of natural history in Hawaiʻi.

  Dubautia plantaginea

Dubautia plantaginea

March 8, 2017 Unexpected challenges in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

Starting collection for the Global Genome Initiative, we knew there would be challenges.  We assumed one of those challenges would be locating rare species, but collecting recently in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park (HAVO), we had the opposite problem.

Pseudognaphalium sandwicensium is a perennial herb common in disturbed, dry areas throughout Hawaiʻi.  Living up to its common name, cudweed, it is abundant and appears in weedy patches along roadsides, such as along Hilina Pali Road, where we were collecting in HAVO.

 Kalena Spinola, an undergraduate student in the Advanced Tropical Island Ecology and Evolution course collecting  Pseudognaphalium   sandwicensium   kilaueanum

Kalena Spinola, an undergraduate student in the Advanced Tropical Island Ecology and Evolution course collecting Pseudognaphalium sandwicensium kilaueanum

Although this is the only native Pseudognaphalium in Hawaiʻi, there are three recognized subspecies occurring on Hawaiʻi Island, and we are collecting taxa to the subspecies level. 

As we were not familiar with this species and its subspecies, we tried to do our homework.  Looking in the Manual of Flowering Plants of Hawaiʻi, the distributions of the three varieties—hawaiiense, kilaueanum, and sandwicensium—overlap.  Subspecies hawaiiense is described as being very fragrant with heads loosely arranged within clusters, kilaueanum has shiny involucral bracts and achieves the longest stem length, and subspecies sandwicensium has potentially larger leaves (although all the three ranges exhibit overlap) with glabrate involucre bracts, except at the base.

Unfortunately, these features are not always clear cut in the field: How do you compare “very fragrant” and “loosely arranged heads” if the specimens you examine appear the same and all have the same fragrance and head arrangement? Were two subspecies not there to see these distinguishing features, or were we not being discerning enough?

After examining herbarium specimens and consulting with HAVO’s botanist, it is still hard to be 100% certain about our assessment.  In the end, we used stem length to decide our collections were subsp. kilaueanum, but we may need to consult an expert to make sure we collect the other two morphologically recognized subspecies so our vouchers and associated genetic data exhibit the original intent of the subspecies designations.

Sometimes certainty is scarce when trying to compartmentalize life.  The Manual of Flowering Plants of Hawaiʻi itself states that certain varieties intergrade, and that, “this complex is in need of careful study, especially since 3 of the 4 distinctive entities have overlapping distributions yet apparently maintain themselves without any visible ecological differences.…”

Although we struggle so far to see these distinctive entities, genetic resources made available through the careful collection of these three subspecies could help confirm isolated populations of verifiable subspecies, or a large, diverse population with high variability and gene flow.

2018 Update: After checking our morphological and molecular information, we determined (and confirmed with experts), that we actually collected an introduced species.  A collection of the native Pseudognaphalium sandwicensium was later made at Pohakuloa Training Area, and we did not attempt to identify it to subspecies.

 Dubautia scabra scabra

Dubautia scabra scabra

March 25, 2017 Adaptive radiation of the Hawaiian silversword alliance

It’s one thing to read about evolution in a textbook, it’s another to see its outcomes firsthand in a couple afternoons. Students in the Advanced Tropical Island Ecology and Evolution Lab are getting that opportunity by exploring the Compositae on Hawaiʻi Island.

  Dubautia ciliolata ciliolata

Dubautia ciliolata ciliolata

Following collection in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, we now have three members of the genus Dubautia, a member of the adaptive radiation commonly referred to as the Silversword Alliance.  A single ancestor from California arriving in the islands approximately 5.2 million years ago radiated to 32 species in the three endemic genera Argyroxiphium, Dubautia, and Wilkesia.

In the park, we collected both Dubautia scabra subsp. scabra and Dubautia ciliolata subsp. ciliolata.  It is easy to see the similarities between these two taxa: both are woody shrubs growing in open environments on relatively new lava flows with shared morphological features (see pictures). In fact, hybridization between the two is reportedly common.

What is striking is how different morphologically and ecologically these species are from Dubautia plantaginea (see first post), a species growing up to seven meters tall in forested environments on well-developed soil.

 Jeff Stallman, Grace Tredinnick, and Kalena Spinola (left to right) prepare samples to be pressed as museum vouchers

Jeff Stallman, Grace Tredinnick, and Kalena Spinola (left to right) prepare samples to be pressed as museum vouchers

In the following weeks, we will continue to collect more specimens highlighting the diversity of Dubautia, and are looking forward to exploring how well genetic barcodes differentiate between species and subspecies within this genus, the larger Silversword Alliance, and Hawaiian Compositae in general.

 Kalya Clarke and Fiona Metcalfe (a visiting exchange student from the University of Stirling, Scotland) correctly identify a  Bidens hawaiiensis  in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Kalya Clarke and Fiona Metcalfe (a visiting exchange student from the University of Stirling, Scotland) correctly identify a Bidens hawaiiensis in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

April 15, 2017 Collecting above the clouds atop Mauna Kea

UH Hilo students had the opportunity to follow the Hawaiian Asteraceae to their highest elevations at the end of March, collecting on the slopes of Mauna Kea that still held snow from a winter storm three months earlier.

Rising over 4,200 meters above sea level, Mauna Kea presents an extreme alpine environment: less than 200 millimeters of annual precipitation, extreme temperature swings, high solar radiation, and strong winds.

Our sights were set on three species, two additional examples of the silversword alliance that we have written about before: Dubautia arborea and Dubautia ciliolata subsp. glutinosa, and Tetramolopium humile subsp. humile

All three taxa have adaptations to cope with the harsh conditions present high on the mountain. D. ciliolata glutinosa and T. humile humile form compact, dwarf shrubs with hairy leaves. While D. arborea can be much taller, it retains hairy leaves and appears to prefer sheltered habitats as elevation increases to protect itself from the wind.

All tissue collections were sent to the Smithsonian, and our first set of genetic information was recently received back. With this initial dataset, students will begin to compare how DNA barcodes that are routinely used to discriminate species outside Hawaiʻi work on Hawaiian Asteraceae.

Questions include how well barcodes discriminate subspecies (D. ciliolata glutinosa vs. D. ciliolata ciliolata), species (Dubautia scabra vs. Dubautia arborea), genera in separate radiations (Dubautia vs. Tetramolopium), and eventually genera in the same radiation (Dubautia vs. Argyroxiphium).

More photos and information on new collections, and observations from our initial molecular data analysis will be shared soon. 

 Kalena Spinola and Genevieve Blanchet collecting on Mauna Kea

Kalena Spinola and Genevieve Blanchet collecting on Mauna Kea

February 6, 2018 Parsing species of Melanthera at Pohakuloa Training Area

Hawaii Island has 3 species in the genus Melanthera.  They all grow in relatively dry habitats on the leeward side of the island, often in degraded habitats among alien grasses.

Melanthera subcordata and Melanthera lavarum, while not common, are not listed as of conservation concern, while Melanthera venosa is critically endangered.

Melanthera subcordata and Melanthera venosa are particularly similar with the Manual of Flowering Plants of Hawaii stating one of the key differences being the whether the stems are erect or sprawling, but otherwise they are quite similar.

This genus presents an excellent example of how our project may be of use to managers: one endangered plant is hard to tell apart from another that is not, and the ranges overlap including with another species in the genus. 

We were able to collect samples of M. subcordata from both HAVO and PTA, and M. venosa from PTA.  Unfortunately, M. lavarum has not been collected on Hawaii Island and after asking experts and performing a search of the last two sites it was collected in the 1980s based on herbarium records, we could not locate it.

Once we get our data back, we’ll see if DNA barcodes and differentiate between these two species of Melanthera.

  Melanthera integrifolia

Melanthera integrifolia

  Melanthera venosa

Melanthera venosa

  Melanthera subcordata

Melanthera subcordata

Spring 2018 Integrating teaching and research

A new year, a new semester, and more groups of UH Hilo biology students in the field helping with our project.

Students in BIOL 481 in Fall 2017 assisted our first round of collecting in accessible areas that did not require extensive permitting.

 Biology 481 student, Kayla Clarke, collecting at 12,000' elevation on Mauna Kea

Biology 481 student, Kayla Clarke, collecting at 12,000' elevation on Mauna Kea

Students in the same course in Spring 2018 are helping us finish our collecting with some of the species that have taken the most time to find, or the most permitting to have permission to sample.

In January we went to Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park, where several outplantings of Bidens micrantha ctenophylla are a short walk from the visitor’s center.  This was an opportunity to see an endangered plant, and look at some of the other native species naturally occurring in the area, or part of the park’s restoration work, such as Waltheria indica, Sida fallax, and Capparis sandwichiana.

 Hanna Louise Partoft, an exchange student from the University of Stirling, Scotland, recording data on   
  
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   Bidens micrantha ctenophylla  at     
  
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  Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park

Hanna Louise Partoft, an exchange student from the University of Stirling, Scotland, recording data on Bidens micrantha ctenophylla at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park

At this time there have now been 18 undergraduate students involved in the project, and a senior at Waiakea High School.

There are many questions that can be asked and answered with the data we are accumulating through this project, so we’re looking forward to seeing what the students produce for their projects.

A warm mahalo to all of those who have assisted with this project!

As of Monday, February 26th, we are finished collecting for our project.

As we send our samples to the Smithsonian Institution and wait for DNA sequences in return, this is a good opportunity to acknowledge those who have helped us along the way. 

Thanks to Steve Evans and Pomai Lyman at the Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA) Natural Resources Office for access and plant locations at PTA.

 Jeff taking collection notes at PTA with Mauna Kea in the background.

Jeff taking collection notes at PTA with Mauna Kea in the background.

Thanks to Charmian Dang who helped us secure permits through the Natural Area Reserve Systems, and Annie Marshall who did the same through the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

   
  
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  Special permits for the sampling of tissues from endangered species, such as this  Argyroxiphium kauense , were required.  Photo credit: Lyman Perry

Special permits for the sampling of tissues from endangered species, such as this Argyroxiphium kauense, were required.  Photo credit: Lyman Perry

Thanks to Lyman Perry with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Josh VanDeMark with the Plant Extinction Prevention Program, for helping us find difficult-to-locate taxa, and making collections when we could not.

Thank you to Sierra McDaniel, Kaileʻa Carlson, Rhonda Loh who helped us secure permits and find species at Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park and Kaloko-Honokohau Historic Park.

   
  
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   Bidens hawaiiensis  from the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park Nursery.  Some species were easier to sample in cultivation as access to wild populations could be difficult or possibly detrimental in certain circumstances.

Bidens hawaiiensis from the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park Nursery.  Some species were easier to sample in cultivation as access to wild populations could be difficult or possibly detrimental in certain circumstances.

Thanks to Tara Myers, Erin Datlof, Geneviève Blanchet, Jeremy Schrader, and the students of the Advanced Tropical Island Ecology and Evolution course  (BIOL 481) in Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 for assisting with collections. 

And of course thank you to our collaborators, Vicki Funk at the Smithsonian Institution Department of Botany, and Jonathan Price at the University of Hawaii Hilo Department of Geography and Environmental Science.