Earlier this year, I had selected 20 seventh and eighth grade students to attend the 2015 Bio Blitz at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park May 14th-16th and spend two nights at the park's Kilauea Military Camp. As I planned our field trip, I kept getting asked by just about everyone: What is the Bio Blitz? Well, if you break it down, bio means life and blitz implies it happens fast. Now that we have returned from our Bio Blitz adventure, I realize this name is most appropriate; we were indeed immersed in a fascinating array of life forms and our trip went by incredibly fast.
So, officially, the Bio-Blitz is a 24-hour citizen science event, co-sponsored by the National Park Service and National Geographic, where teams of scientists, students, teachers, rangers, and community members collaborate to conduct a biological survey of a national park. That is, everyone works hard to find and identify as many of the animals, plants, fungi, and other organisms as possible. During the Bio Blitz, species unknown to the park are often discovered. This year's Bio Blitz, held at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, is the ninth of a series of ten annual Bio Blitzes that lead up to the National Park Service's 100th anniversary next year.
As we gathered in the Honolulu airport Thursday morning, there was no doubt the Star of the Sea Bio Blitz-ers we were ready for adventure!
Our mission for the Bio Blitz was a biological inventory, but as soon as we entered the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, we could not ignore the amazing geology. Located on the youngest of the Hawaiian islands, Big Island, the park is named for its active volcanoes. Right away, you are aware of the primal forces of volcanism that can devastate lush rainforest with lava flows; this natural catastrophe, however, is followed by new life. A dynamic cycle of destruction and renewal is evident here. As we drove down the park's Chain of Craters Road, excitement was building and students were stoked to get out and explore the lavascape.
There are two distinct types of lava visible here, pāhoehoe lava and ʻaʻā. Both types have the exact same chemical composition but are formed under different conditions. In its melted state, ʻaʻā has less gas, is less fluid, and has a lower temperature than pāhoehoe. We were able to observe the rough, jagged ʻaʻā formations, and we hiked all over the smooth, billowy pāhoehoe. You could see how when the pāhoehoe flowed, the more fluid lava underneath caused the partially solidified "skin" on top to ripple and swirl. The texture was so beautiful!
Students took quite a few selfies, but they also took time to observe the lava closely. In the cracks, there were small 'ae ferns and ʻōhiʻa lehua trees growing. These important pioneer species are some of the first to colonize areas of recent lava flow, with forests bordering the lava field providing the seeds. Yet you cannot help but imagine what it must have been like when the Hawaiian islands first started to form. Since the islands were completely barren in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, it is said that all the native life had to come from the pioneering species brought here by the "three W's": waves, wind, and wings.
We also had a chance to visit the Thurston Lava Tube, named for Lorrin Thurston, a local newspaper publisher who found the lava tube in 1913. Back then, lava stalactites hung from the ceiling of the tube, but people soon raided them all as souvenirs. Scientists estimate the tube was formed about 500-550 years ago when a channelized lava flow crusted over and the hot fluid core drained away. We all descended the narrow trail through lush rainforest, listening to a chorus of birds. Then, the forest opened up to a massive, cave-like lava tube. It was exciting to walk through the tube, wet with seeping rainwater and faintly illuminated by mounted lights.
One of the objectives for the Bio Blitz was to develop a sense of place and appreciation for biodiversity through field study in the local environment. Fortunately, the organizers of this year's Bio Blitz recognized the intimate connection between native Hawaiians and the natural world and made efforts to integrate indigenous knowledge and cultural protocol. In fact, the Bio Blitz alakai'i (cultural practitioners) led the students in komo (entrance) and mahalo (gratitude) 'oli (chants) to begin and end each student inventory. Click here for a copy of both chants in Hawaiian (with English translation).
To help our Star of the Sea group prepare for visiting the sacred places of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, I had invited local kumu Toni Bissen, executive director of the Pūʻā Foundation, to provide students with relevant cultural knowledge. Through interactive lessons during an all-day retreat, we investigated the land divisions, ahupua'a, on Big Island, as compared to O'ahu. Kumu Bissen also helped us practice our 'oli and plan our ho'okupu (gift) to Pele. Another fantastic resource has been Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park Cultural Anthropologist Keola Awong. She shares her perspective on Bio Blitz in an interview with National Geographic: "Traditional Knowledge Helps Us Understand Nature in Every Sense."
The komo 'oli, composed by Kepā Maly and performed by Keola Awong:
Native Hawaiians believe that Kīlauea Volcano is the home of Pele, the fire goddess. In Hawaiian legends, this powerful, passionate deity of volcanoes created the Hawaiian islands. She is also referred to as Pele-honua-mea (Pele of the sacred land) and Ka wahine ʻai honua (the earth-eating woman). Since we were visiting Pele's home, we wanted to show proper respect by bringing her a ho'okupu (gift). Our gifts to Pele included 'oli, botanicals from our school campus, and much aloha.
Himalayan ginger was brought to Hawai'i as an ornamental plant due to its beautiful and fragrant flowers. In fact, it is also called kāhili ginger for the flowers resemblance to a kāhili , a feather staff Hawaiians displayed in the presence of royalty. Unfortunately, this ginger has escaped local gardens and become one of the most invasive plants in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, growing rapidly and completely replacing the native rainforest understory. Due to its propensity to choke out native Hawaiian plants, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature includes Himalayan ginger on the "100 of the World's Worst Invasive Alien Species" list.
So, before our Bio Blitz experience officially began, I decided we were going to spend a few hours serving the park by removing this invasive ginger. Volunteers Paul and Jane Field provided our Star of the Sea crew all the knowledge and tools needed for the task. After donning gloves, students grabbed their loppers (cutting tools) and got to work. Students slashed their way through a large marked area, cutting huge gingers to about knee-high and stacking the lopped stems in clear areas. The Fields will return to the area later and apply a low-concentration herbicide to the exposed stems, which will kill the gingers and not affect the native plants.
Despite the wet weather, everyone worked hard to clear the ginger, while avoiding any other plants with our loppers. We were proud to mālama the rainforest, so the habitat of native and endemic Hawaiian rainforest plants can be restored. Hopefully, the ginger we took out today will make it possible for native plants to grow, including pa'iniu (a Hawaiian lily), 'ama'u fern, and many others. Invasive species like the Himalayan ginger, are one of the biggest threats to Hawaii's biodiversity.
On Friday morning, the official Bio Blitz Student Inventories began. These inventories, held simultaneously at five different rainforest sites in the park, were conducted by over 800 students from many different Big Island schools. Star of the Sea School, however, was the only participating school from another island. Students engaged in three different rotations: plants, birds, and arthropods. During each rotation, students learned about how scientists identify and classify members of those groups. Students used the iNaturalist app on their mobile devices to photograph, identify, and map species they found, adding the observations to the official Bio Blitz inventory.
I ka nānā
I ka nānā no a ‘ike. This very old and important Hawaiian practice is the theme of this year's Bio Blitz. After our entrance 'oli and before the inventories began, students were encouraged to take some quiet time to engage and focus their powers of observation. Students began to observe the rainforest with all their senses (well, except for taste) and try to formulate questions about their surroundings. This task put students in the proper mindset for the biological inventories, as we were going to conduct them with great care and respect.
Hawaiian honeycreepers are a famed example of adaptive radiation, one species evolving into many to fill different niches. The varied beaks of the honeycreepers illustrate this concept for they are suited to different food sources. At the bird rotation, despite hearing a tremendous chorus of birds, it was challenging to find the animals themselves. Students used binoculars to spot two gorgeous species of honeycreeper: the red 'apapane and yellow 'amakihi.
One group of students began their afternoon by looking for one of Hawaii's most memorable endemic creatures, the Happy Face Spider. These spiders get their names not from their attitudes but from the markings on their abdomen that sometimes resemble a smiling face or clownish grin. Though it has been suggested that the color pattern might scare away bird predators, many scientists theorize these markings serve no purpose. Since spiders of the same species can exhibit an array of forms (colors and markings) due to gene variations, it is known as a polymorph. I have always wanted to find one...and if it was not too much to ask, I wanted to find one with a distinct happy face!
One of the student groups had the opportunity to participate in a Bio Cube project with acclaimed naturalist photographer David Liittschwager, who often works with National Geographic and Smithsonian. Our aim was to set up David's green metal frame, one cubic foot in area, in a diverse habitat and carefully identify and document all the life within it. It's a Bio Blitz on a small scale. In Smithsonian Magazine's The Insane Amount of Biodiversity in One Cubic Foot, David describes his One Cubic Foot book and mission. He makes a case for why these small spots, and small creatures, matter. While in the field with students, David took the time to give students technical tips on how to best photograph the plants and animals. We had a lot of fun scoping out a spot to put the Bio Cube, and we finally placed it in a gully dripping with mosses, liverworts, ferns, and other plants.
The results of our Bio Cube are forthcoming, but we certainly enjoyed our time at Hawai'i Volcanoes with David and his assistant Zach. We all came away with a new appreciation for biodiversity and were inspired by the creative blend of art and science in David's work.
Another student group started their afternoon by hiking the Kilauea Ike trail through lush rainforest all the way down to the solidified but still-steaming crater floor. Students followed the lightly etched trail across the lava field and saw steam vents, cinder cones, and spatter cones. Hard to believe that this field formed in 1959, when Kilauea Ike's Pu‘u Pua‘i cinder cone erupted and sent lava fountains almost 2,000 feet in the air! Students were stoked to explore this volcanic landscape together.
Some students then got a chance to participate in a public Fungus Inventory with members of the Hynson lab and the Amend lab, both with the Department of Botany, University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Those labs regularly conduct forays in Hawaiian habitats to assess the diversity of our fungi, so the Bio Blitz was part of this ongoing effort.
With guidance from these expert scientists, Star of the Sea students helped collect fungus samples and assisted with initial cataloguing. They may have even helped discover species of fungus previously unknown to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park!
The Crater's Glow
Have you ever seen an erupting volcano? Since we were staying right in the park, a night hike to see the glow at Kīlauea's Halemaʻumaʻu Crater was absolutely essential. We bundled up in all our layers and, despite drizzly weather, walked the Crater Rim trail to the overlook at Jagger Museum. Though the lava lake had once again receded below the crater surface before we arrived in the park, there was still an amazing glow from the sub-surface lava. The volcano's plume and all the surrounding clouds were illuminated red. At one point, a piece of the crater wall fell in and there was a loud boom and tremendous flash of light. Pele!
As a way to further marry science and culture, the park hosted the Volcanoes Biodiversity and Cultural Festival during the Bio Blitz. The festival featured a variety of exhibits, demonstrations, and hula and musical performances. Before we departed from the park on Saturday, students were excited to spent some time at the festival's many educational booths and try their hands at some traditional Hawaiian crafts. As we set out on this sunny day, the wide, shield-shaped dome of the park's other active volcano, Mauna Loa, was visible. In fact, Mauna Loa is the world's largest active volcano, with an elevation of 13,680 feet and encompassing 10,000 cubic miles. On our walk, we also saw some more of the park's unique features.
We moved along the crater's edge by the steam vents and Steaming Bluff. These steam vents occur because groundwater seeps down to the hot, volcanic rocks below and then billows up as steam from cracks in the earth. It is safe to be near the steam vents, as long as you stay on the trail so you do not risk falling into one. We then walked to the colorful Sulphur Banks where in addition to groundwater steam, volcanic gases escape out of the ground. These gases are rich in carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide (which stinks like rotten eggs!) Some sulfur gases deposit intricate yellow crystals here. However, other sulfur gases form sulfuric acid which breaks down the lava to clay, stained red and brown with iron oxide.
The Bio Blitz trip was a tremendous learning adventure for the Star of the Sea team of students, teachers, and parent chaperones. Some lessons came swiftly in the moment, while others will grow over time, unfurling inside us like the majestic fronds of the hapu'u.
Let's all spend more time outdoors! And when we do, let's slow down and closely observe the world around us. Our natural and cultural treasures, which can be regarded as one and the same, make Hawai'i a very special place. We are home to an impressive array of native and endemic life, but this biodiversity is under threat due to habitat loss and invasive species. Therefore, we all must work together to mālama Hawai'i.
- Chaperones Lyman Lacro, Yuri Fox, Dawn Johnson, Tim Johnson and scientist mentor Raphael Ritson-Williams for keeping all of our students safe and engaged.
- Principal Margaret Rufo, the faculty at Star of the Sea, and kumu Toni Bissen for your support.
- Honored partners Jim Gale, Keola Awong, David Liittschwager, Paul & Jane Field, Arthur Wierzchos, Winn Brewer, and the Amend/Hynson labs for sharing your time and talents.
- National Geographic and the National Park Service for making Bio Blitz possible.
- The 20 participating students (and their families) for making Bio Blitz awesome!!