Public-private partnership bolsters Hawaiian land snail conservation efforts

A collaboration between the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, and the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources to conserve endangered Hawaiian land snails is one of six new projects funded by a partnership between the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The three-year, $1,595,518 project will address knowledge and capacity shortfalls to advance conservation science and action for endangered Hawaiian land snails. 

The research team, including Kiana Frank, assistant professor at the Pacific Biosciences Research Center in the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, will determine host plant preferences, characterize feeding ecology, and determine primary microbial food resources that are critical for enhancing captive rearing and wild propagation of endangered land snails in Hawai‘i. 

Hawaiian land snails, most of which are found nowhere else in the world, are among some of the most threatened animals on the planet. With nearly 60% already extinct, research to inform immediate conservation action for the remaining few is urgently needed. 

The support from NSF and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation will be used to address major knowledge gaps regarding endemic land snail feeding ecology. Specifically, the project will examine the microbial food resources found on native plants on which snails live and develop culturing methods to grow the preferred plants and microbial communities to improve the efficiency of captive rearing. Knowledge gained from this will have benefits for restoring native ecosystems into which captively-reared snails can be released, benefiting conservation for a diversity of Hawaiian organisms that rely on native ecosystems and the services they provide. 

In collaboration with the team, Frank’s role on the project is threefold: as a researcher, to support the environmental microbiome component; as an educator, to support the next generation training program which will be run synergistically with her REU: Environmental Biology for Pacific Islanders; and as a science communicator, to bridge connections between indigenous ways of knowing and western science in both practice and application to improve conservation outcomes. 

“This project is strongly aligned with values and mission of PBRC and C-MAIKI as well as aligned to the strategic vision of the University by forwarding innovative and applicable work at the intersections of the environment and microbiome to support stewardship and sustainability of environmental resources,” said Frank, who is also a co-investigator on the new project. 

“This award will allow our team to develop the foundation for transforming conservation of Hawaiian land snails in the coming decade, and provide deeper insights into how plants, snails, and microbes interact in Hawaii’s diverse native ecosystems,” said Kenneth Hayes, Director of the Pacific Center for Molecular Biodiversity at Bishop Museum, and lead investigator for the project. 

Part of a larger conservation initiative

This project is part of a new $8 million collaboration between NSF and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation called Partnership to Advance Conservation Science and Practice (PACSP). Collectively, the projects funded by this partnership will combine scientific research and conservation activities to learn from and protect Earth’s biodiversity, with a focus on protecting diverse ecosystems and imperiled species across the country. 

In accordance with PASCP’s goals, the UH Mānoa team and their partners will develop science-informed conservation action plans and contribute to the development of tools and efforts that advance biodiversity conservation. In addition, the team will work to engage policymakers, students, teachers, and the public on topics related to conservation.

“More than 1,000,000 species across the globe are threatened with extinction and these projects are a step towards decreasing that number and slowing the rate of biodiversity loss on Earth,” said Simon Malcomber, acting assistant director for NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences. “These efforts are critical as losing any species impacts society, whether by changes in disease patterns, decreases in natural pest control, ecosystem degradation, or by losing one of life’s unique solutions to problems that humans could’ve harnessed to our benefit.”

“The breadth of biodiversity loss in the United States is reflected in the wide range of species covered in these six projects. While the approaches are different, each study addresses systemic issues that are much bigger than a singular species, and they leverage science and technology to accelerate conservation solutions,” said Lara Littlefield, Executive Director on behalf of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. “The increased number of new-to-NSF applicants also tells us that there is untapped potential for more collaboration between primary research and applied technology.” Read also on Bishop Museum NewsNSF and Paul G. Allen Family Foundation Co-Fund Conservation Science and Action on behalf of Key Species and Ecosystems, Paul G Allen Family Foundation News, and NSF News.