Life Lessons at Hawai’i BioBlitz

This post is written by 2014 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Cristina Veresan. Cristina is the assistant principal and science educator at Star of the Sea School in Honolulu, Hawaii. 

Exploring the Hawaiian rain forest, surrounded by natural beauty, is an adventure for the senses. While at the 2015 BioBlitz at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, 20 of my 7th and 8th grade students from Star of the Sea School investigated biodiversity by immersing themselves in these native forests.

The BioBlitz, a citizen science event co-sponsored by the National Park Service and National Geographic, featured a 24-hour biological survey of the park conducted by teams of scientists, students, teachers, cultural practitioners, and community members. The traditional Hawaiian approach to nature, I ka nānā no a ‘ike (by observing, one learns), was the theme of this year’s BioBlitz.

By observing, what did my students learn?

Though some scientists hypothesize the happy face spider’s unusual markings might confuse bird predators, most maintain it serves no purpose.
Photograph by Raphael Ritson-Williams

Making a Discovery
We learned that our islands have a very high number of endemic species, those exclusively found here in Hawai’i. One of the most fascinating endemic creatures is the happy face spider (Theridion grallator). These yellow spiders get their names not from their attitudes, but from markings on their abdomen that sometimes resemble a smiling face or clownish grin. While in an area of native forest, students searched for these tiny, elusive spiders.

My students spread out and carefully peered under the leaves of kolea and kawa’u trees. And their persistence paid off when we spotted five different adult spiders and dozens of babies. Keenan, age 13, said “looking for the spiders was really fun because I had never seen one before! It was so special to find them.” And Liam, age 13, added that his favorite thing about nature is that “you can always discover new things.”

Science teacher Cristina Veresan (center) and students Kayla (left) and Melia (right) celebrate finding five different adult happy face spiders during their search. Photograph by Raphael Ritson-Williams
Star of the Sea School students and chaperones work together to clear Himalayan ginger, one of the most invasive plants in the park. Photograph by Raphael Ritson-Williams

Making a Difference
Invasive species are one of the biggest threats to Hawai’i’s biodiversity. Quick-growing Himalayan ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum) was brought here as an ornamental plant due to its beautiful, fragrant flowers—but once it escaped local gardens into the rain forest, it began replacing the native rain forest understory. As a way to mālama (care for) the park during BioBlitz, my students slashed their way through a large area of native forest that had been overtaken by ginger.

Students cut the huge plants to about knee-high and stacked the lopped stems in clear areas. Volunteers later returned to the area and applied a low-concentration herbicide to the exposed stems. Samantha, age 12, noticed “when we got to the forest, it was completely overgrown with ginger. But by the end, there was so much cut ginger on the ground and it looked clear.” Taylor, age 12, proudly stated “you could see we made a difference. Now more native species can grow.”

One less invasive ginger in the rain forest! Liam proudly displays a ginger plant he has just cut down in the effort to restore the native rainforest.
Photograph by Cristina Veresan

Making an Impression
At BioBlitz, we hiked steaming lavascapes and lush rain forest by day and watched the dramatic glow of the erupting Kīlauea volcano by night. Yet, when most students reflected on their favorite parts of the trip, the quiet moments in the forest searching for creatures and the camaraderie of chopping ginger in the rain were mentioned most.

Students enjoyed working together, and they honed their observation skills. Cole, age 13, told me he learned a lot about ecology and the experience made him “more aware of [his] surroundings.” I am most proud that the BioBlitz inspired a conservation ethic. As Abner reflected, “I now know how much our world depends on biodiversity to thrive, and we need to protect it.” The Bio Blitz was not simply an inventory of life but an opportunity for life lessons.

Learn more about BioBlitz.
Read Cristina’s full BioBlitz blog post.

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