Wēkiu Bug Research Atop Maunakea

Jessica Kirkpatrick’s research examines wēkiu bug habitat restoration possibly needed after decommissioning of three observatories on Maunakea.

Jessica and Jesse

Jessica Kirkpatrick, a graduate student with the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, is conducting research on the native wēkiu bug found only on the summit cinder cones of Maunakea.

Kirkpatrick’s research, under the tutelage of Jesse Eiben, an assistant professor of applied entomology at UH Hilo, involves understanding wēkiu bug habitat in order to provide information for possible habitat restoration following the scheduled decommissioning and removal of three observatories on Maunakea.

Kirkpatrick is studying the requirements needed for wēkiu bug habitat such as the mineral composition, temperature and slope of cinder cones, and is correlating those requirements with wēkiu bug dispersion patterns to find habitat that is most closely associated with stable, high density wēkiu bug populations.

This information can be used to recreate habitat that is most favorable for the bugs and can help estimate population densities.

“You can use that same kind of data to then measure the success of restored populations,” explains Kirkpatrick. “This study is kind of like a baseline of wēkiu bug habitat before restoration activities.”

The budding entomologist also is making recommendations to the Office of Maunakea Management regarding the best methods for monitoring wēkiu bugs.

Applied learning at UH Hilo

Kirkpatrick graduated three years ago from UH Hilo with a bachelor of science in environmental science and credits the applied learning experiences she had as an undergraduate with preparing her for the current research she’s doing.

“As an undergraduate I really enjoyed the classes and a lot of my friends were in the graduate program,” she says. “I always told myself that this (graduate program) is where I am going to end up.”

Pacific Internship Programs for Exploring Science

Jessica Kirkpatrick during her internship
Jessica Kirkpatrick

While in the UH Hilo undergraduate program, Kirkpatrick was able to intern with the Pacific Internship Programs for Exploring Science (PIPES) and worked with the Hawksbill Turtle Recovery Program at Volcanoes National Park.

“It was the best summer of my life,” she recalls. “We got to hike down to all the cool beaches and monitor for turtles. It would be all night long, but it was a good experience. I have really good friends and really good connections from that internship.”

After graduating with her bachelor of science degree, she again joined PIPES and worked with Prof. Eiben. It was here that she got her first introduction to entomology, examining arthropod biodiversity on Maunakea alongside an expert in the field.

Office of Maunakea Management

Kirkpatrick interned with Eiben and the Office of Maunakea Management at the same time. Upon completion of her internship, the office hired her to be a resource management assistant. Kirkpatrick stayed in that position for three years and helped write the Maunakea Invasive Species Management Plan.

These experiences helped peak her interest in the wēkiu bug and encouraged her decision to enter into the UH Hilo tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program.

Teaching and Research Arthropod Collection

Kirkpatrick attributes much of her interest in the wēkiu bug to the enthusiasm that Prof. Eiben shared with her during her undergraduate internship. Eiben is now her mentor and adviser for the master’s program, and in addition to the wēkiu bug habitat research, he has welcomed her assistance in the development of the recently established Teaching and Research Arthropod Collection lab at the UH Hilo College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management.

Goals for the lab include creating a functional space for students and researchers to be involved with arthropod research and education, and to make the numerous arthropod specimens in the university’s custodianship available as an informational resource for the community.

Future plans for Kirkpatrick include continued work with arthropods on Maunakea and the possible pursuit of a doctorate in forest entomology.

Originally published at UH Hilo Stories

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