UH unit swats at mosquito
An alien species threatens survival of many native birds
The establishment of a dangerous new mosquito on the Big Island represents the continued risk Hawaii faces short of stronger efforts to keep out alien pests, argues the director of an influential and little-known conservation clearinghouse at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
"We're spending our time on house fires when what we need to do is step back and look at the forest," says UH botany professor David Duffy, director of the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit. "We have to stop new things from coming in."
The Japanese or rockpool mosquito, Aedes japonicus, can carry both the West Nile and encephalitis viruses and can live in the higher, cooler elevations that protect many native bird species from other types of mosquitoes, Duffy says.
If West Nile were to become introduced in Hawaii, infected Japanese mosquitoes could carry the disease to the birds' highland refuges, he warns.
The vulnerable species include the palila, a honeycreeper found between a mile and two miles up the flanks of Mauna Kea; the akepa, found above 4,300 feet; the apapane and iiwi, found above 4,100 feet; and the elepaio, found mostly above 2,000 feet, according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Aedes japonicus was discovered in the United States in 1998 and is now found in at least 21 states. It was first spotted on the Big Island in 2004 but so far has not spread to other islands.
The pest is only one of several, including fire ants and biting midges, that could harm tourism as well as the islands' natural treasures, says Duffy, who heads an umbrella group of 300 researchers and administrative staff members who support broad initiatives against alien invaders.
As of Jan. 3, according to the Centers for Disease Control, human cases of West Nile virus had been reported in every state except Hawaii, Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island and Delaware. The risk of serious symptoms from a single mosquito bite is low, but the illness is potentially fatal, particularly for people over 50, the CDC says.
Hawaii's year-round breeding conditions mean any new mosquito raises the risks of associated diseases.
At this month's UH Board of Regents meeting, the agenda listed a dozen recent grants worth more than $2.8 million to Duffy and his UH pest-fighters, mostly from the DLNR but also from the Nature Conservancy.
"We couldn't live without them," says Mark Fox, the conservancy's director of external affairs. "I would venture to say that 70 percent of the conservation work that is done in Hawaii would not be possible without Dave and his team."
Begun in 1973 to bring more scientific research into the national park system, Duffy's unit now manages $14 million in conservation projects.
"Over the years, we have changed in different ways," says Duffy, director for nearly eight years. "We've found that a lot of agencies can work on their own land but don't have access across jurisdictions. Things like miconia (an invasive plant) don't stop at park boundaries. So there was a need to have a group that could work across whole landscapes and across different jurisdictions."
Those entities include the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, landowner Kamehameha Schools and various island watershed protection partnerships. Some team members work for the UH Research Corp.
Duffy says Hawaii needs a much more rigorous inspection system -- his model is New Zealand's -- for air cargo in order to keep out harmful plants, bugs and other critters.
"If we don't do that, we are likely to lose our rain forest," he says bluntly, pointing to the devastation last year of endemic wiliwili trees by an infestation of the Erythrina gall wasp.
Species native to Hawaii evolved without any resistance to many of the pests introduced by ship and air. Pre-contact Hawaii, for instance, had no mosquitoes.