ATHENS, Ohio Tourists flock to Hawaii for its lush landscape of breathtaking flora, but this summer the most remote island ecosystem in the world is serving as a living laboratory for a pair of botanists examining the origins and evolution of plant life on Earth.
The Ohio University botanists, accompanied by four students, are conducting studies on three Hawaiian islands in a journey that will end this week. But while their travels are coming to a close, the real work is just beginning, research that could aid in nature conservation while also painting a clearer picture of Hawaiian plant diversity.
"We chose the Hawaiian Islands because the archipelago is exemplary of oceanic island systems around the world, and because we have ongoing research on plant groups there," said Ballard, an assistant professor of environmental and plant biology and one of two leaders of the university's Global Studies in Plant Biology program.
The group spent their first two weeks conducting field research on Oahu and Kauai and are spending their last week on the big island of Hawaii, collecting plant samples in coastal areas, mountains, swamps, dry and wet forests and areas marked by volcanic lava. Their dirty and painstaking work is revealing an ecosystem invaded by foreign plant species, a problem Ballard said has been underestimated in the past.
"You have to hike far into the forest to find areas where there aren't many invasive plants," he says. "The vast majority of the landscape has been altered from its native condition." Ballard concedes that any area inhabited by humans will show an ecological impact Ohio, for example, only has 2 percent of its pre-settlement vegetation but he argues that Hawaii appears to be particularly under siege. Also, there is more to lose here about 92 percent of the native land plants can't be found anywhere else in the world.