Plant Cam keeps a watchful eye on extremely rare plant

Deep in the Honouliuli Forest Reserve, high in O‘ahu’s Wai‘anae Mountains, a sophisticated monitoring station is watching “Caly” 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Caly (cyanea calycina), or haha in Hawaiian, is one of less than 200 members of this species left on O‘ahu.

Lucas Fortini, a research ecologist at the USGS Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center, led this project which was administered by the Pacific Biosciences Research Center (PBRC) in the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

One might imagine that watching a plant grow is like watching paint dry. Not so.

“People don’t think that a plant moves on a daily basis,” explained Susan Ching, the O‘ahu Botanist for the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW). “But with changes in light and rainfall, with time-lapse, you can see leaves perk up or hang down depending on how much rain we’ve had. It’s actually exciting to see how much the plant does move and interact with its environment.”

The Life of Caly: The life of an endangered plant on top of a mountain in Hawai‘i, is the website available to anyone, where viewers can check on Caly’s growth and soon watch her bloom. The system produces real-time views of Caly, the time-lapses of the plant and of the broader landscape, and captures storm systems come and go as they pass up and over the Wai‘anae range.

The “plant cam” is a partnership between the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UH Mānoa), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and DLNR/DOFAW.

Fortini said the team has two primary research goals: “One is trying to really understand the biology of a lot of these endangered plants that grow nowhere else in the world. It takes a lot of effort to keep them around. Second, is monitoring to really understand how these plants react to changes in the environment, weather and so forth.”

The monitoring station provides a window into the life of Caly and other native plants and will help researchers determine the best locations for possible relocations.

Last fall Fortini and UH Mānoa geography graduate student Ryan Mudd spent days stringing power and transmission cable from the plant cam and monitoring station almost vertically uphill, through thick underbrush and forest, to the top of a ridge.

Mudd explained, “In addition to the time-lapse loops, people who view the website will be able to see graphs and charts that depict atmospheric conditions around Caly, like temperatures, moisture, and light conditions.”

During the history-making rains on O‘ahu in February a nearby tree toppled onto Caly. Had the plant camera not been active, it could have been weeks before researchers made the hike deep into the forest reserve to check on it.  It was damaged, but since its watchers got there quickly they were able to clear branches and limbs that otherwise might have killed it.

Ching added, “Due to our high population on O‘ahu we get distracted from our natural habitat.  A lot of attention is given to lowland issues like erosion and beach activities. Our forests and our rare and endangered plants are also highly impacted by human activity. The hope is when people engage in The Life of Caly on the plant cam website they’ll find benefit in making a new connection to our environment.”

Watch the video, Life of Caly

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