A Japanese white-eye scouts the underside of a broad leaf for insects on the island of Oahu. The notable feature of these songbirds is an eponymous white eye ring, no less striking than their jade heads and golden throats. The Japanese white-eye’s vibrant hues seem natural among the colorful flora of these tropical forests; nevertheless, it’s an invader.
Brought to the Hawaiian Islands in the 1920s as a means to control insects, Japanese white-eyes have done their job so well that they’re edging out native bird species and triggering changes in the ecosystem. Much of the land affected is managed by the United States Department of Defense (DOD), which has been working with scientists on four projects to conduct environmental research in three locations throughout Hawaii and one in Guam. The results of their findings are expected to shed light on the effects of non-native species on native ecosystems.
Jeffrey Foster, Assistant Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Biomedical Sciences within the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA) at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), is one of the scientists contracted to work with the DOD on maintaining Oahu’s fragile ecosystem. Foster is collaborating with scientists from the University of Hawaii, the University of Wyoming, the U.S. Army Construction Engineering Research Laboratory, and the non-profit Conservation Sciences Partners to research the loss of native flora and fauna on a large parcel of land near Army installations on Oahu. The team will also investigate the loss of diversity that is contributing to a decline of the local ecosystem. “The native plant community in Hawaii has evolved to be almost entirely dependent on birds for seed dispersal,” says Foster. “Now that those native birds are almost all extinct, we need to see how effective non-native birds and rats are at dispersing non-native plant seeds.”
Foster brings to bear his background as a wildlife biologist, with expertise in studying the effects of non-native birds on Hawaiian ecosystems, to his involvement in the project. “I’ve done bird work for much of my career, including a post-doc at the Smithsonian Institution working on malaria in birds,” says Foster. “Since then, I’ve largely been doing lab work to understand pathogens through genomics.” Foster is grateful for this opportunity to return to the field and join forces with colleagues who are just as passionate about maintaining the imperiled Hawaiian ecosystem. “Hawaiian is both the extinction and invasive species capital of the world,” says Foster. “Although seed dispersal by birds in Hawaii seemingly has few connections to New Hampshire, there are numerous parallels to species invasions in the Granite State. The introduction of non-native species is an enormous threat to our forests, agriculture, wetlands, and tidal areas. These threats include garlic mustard and various introduced beetles and fungi affecting forests and aquatic invaders like variable milfoil infesting lakes. Work in Hawaii will help us better understand the process of invasion so we can develop management strategies that help maintain native ecosystems.”