The National Tropical Botanical Garden, the country’s premier tropical plant research center headquartered in Kalaheo, had a lot of exciting plans for 2020. But instead of traveling around the world for international collaborations, NTBG scientists spent this year exploring their own backyard.

“We had to focus on places we could get to by car,” said Nina Rønsted, NTBG’s director of science and conservation.

The result was a boon for rare Hawaiian plants, as NTBG scientists found new populations of nine critically endangered plants on the steep cliffs of Kauai, including one plant that was thought to be extinct on the island.

“We finally had time to focus more on what we were doing here on the island and to go to some of the areas that were not part of previous excursions,” Rønsted said.

A researcher rappels down a steep cliff to collect samples from an endangered native plant. Before the pandemic, scientists didn’t know that the specific plant lived in this valley. National Tropical Botanical Garden

While the pandemic has presented opportunities for some scientists, like those studying the impact of human activity on wildlife in Hanauma Bay, countless other research projects, theses and studies have been halted.

Taking Research Home

Like many workers around the world, Neal Evenhuis has had to adapt to working from home. The senior curator of entomology at the Bishop Museum thought about taking some specimens home from the lab at the start of the pandemic, but quickly realized he’d have to rethink his 2020 plans instead.

Evenhuis’ office is at the Bishop Museum. Neal Evenhuis

“I live in a small apartment that doesn’t really have space for a microscope or cabinets or other things you need for preserving specimen,” he said.

In a normal year, Evenhuis would probably be traveling around the world searching for new species of flies and helping other scientists identify what flies they have on their hands.

Evenhuis is trying not to focus on the negatives, and instead is glad that 2020 has given him the chance to work on his passion project: a database of all 150,000 known fly species in the world, which makes sense considering Evenhuis has personally named over 600 species of flies.

“I’m continually working on that and so there’s plenty to keep me busy here at home,” he said.

Some of his colleagues have been able to continue working on existing projects by bringing home their microscopes and specimens and recreating lab settings at home. Others work mainly alone and out in nature, like researchers studying fish and plants here in Hawaii. Other projects, like a DNA research project in conjunction with students, had to be put on hold.

Evenhuis conducted field work in Tahiti about a decade ago. He’s avoided making any travel plans this year. Neal Evenhuis

Evenhuis has weathered a number of challenges during his decades-long career studying insects, and securing funding is always top-of-mind.

“We’re a nonprofit so we’re always looking at budget and we’re always trying to increase revenue or minimize expenditures,” he said.

This year has been difficult, and although the Bishop Museum is open with social distancing guidelines in-place, fewer tourists and museum visitors overall will have an impact on next year’s budget.

But so far Evenhuis is optimistic because no one at the museum has been laid off, thanks to CARES act funding and ongoing grants and contracts.

“Researchers have a lot of support at the museum right now and I think we’re all feeling great about that,” he said.

Innovative Excursions

Nina Rønsted, the director of science and conservation at the National Tropical Botanical Garden, has also been reaching out to new and diverse audiences this year.

When school groups could no longer come on tours of the NTBG’s five locations, employees began making online curriculums, virtual garden tours and posting videos on social media.

“We had to be creative and invent new ways to reach new audiences,” she said. “You have to think about long-term impact because otherwise you’re going to get into a depression when you can’t complete your mission.”

This summer a National Tropical Botanical Garden researcher found new populations of this critically endangered native plant in northern Kauai. National Tropical Botanical Garden

Although NTBG scientists weren’t able to meet with other scientists on the mainland or around the world, Rønsted said they’ve been able to leverage their existing contacts to help raise Hawaii’s profile on the international conservation stage.

“Everyone knows the Amazon needs to be protected, and we’re working to get Hawaii up on that international agenda,” she said. “Communication is something we’ve taken up more attentively because we’ve realized that an online presence and social media are more important than we thought they were.”

NTBG’s use of drones to identify rare plants in hard-to-reach areas has received a lot of attention.

Although they’ve been using drones since 2017, this year the technology really shone because it’s easy for a single drone operator to practice social distancing while out in nature.

One such excursion in April led to the discovery of over 130 critically endangered native plants on Kauai, when previously researchers thought there were only 61 plants left in the wild. Researchers found another plant population in July and were able to take cuttings and are propagating the endangered plants to protect the species from extinction.

“We consider this to be very good news in an otherwise very difficult year,” said NTBG’s editor Jon Letman.

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