On the west slopes of Haleakala, Maui, lies the Kamehamenui Forest Reserve. The 3,433 acres of former ranchland was donated to the state by the Trust for Public Land in 2020, and shortly afterward, the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources began invertebrate surveys in order to get a baseline biodiversity estimate prior to reforestation efforts.
That’s when entomologist Dan Rubinoff of the Dept. of Plant and Environmental Sciences, along with his junior researcher Camiel Doorenweerd and grad student Kyhl Austin, discovered five new endemic moth species, all in Hyposmocoma, a remarkable genus of Hawaiian moths found nowhere else.
One of the new species was also found all the way at the peak of Haleakala (at 3,045 meters), which they named Hyposmocoma kukilakila in tribute to the magnificent volcano. Two other species were named after Lance Da Silva of DLNR, which funded DNA results that led to the discoveries, and Kim and Forest Starr, who worked with the DLNR team that actively supported this research.
“We estimate about 50% of Hawaiʻi’s insect diversity is yet undiscovered and unnamed, and we know even less of how these species are part of the intricate and diverse Hawaiian ecosystems that are unique in the world,” says Dan.
Naming undescribed species opens the door to gathering knowledge on the species, including what they eat, what eats them, their behavior, and their evolution, he explains. Understanding their position in the ecosystem can be used to set conservation priorities to try to prevent the incredible diversity of insects that is unique to Hawaiʻi from going extinct. Healthy ecosystems are the basis to any sustainable practice of agriculture, use of water, or any other use of natural resources.
“There is still hope for Hawaiian insects, but if we do nothing, we can expect hundreds of species going extinct in the coming decades without us ever even knowing they existed,” Dan says. “The establishment of forest reserves and reforestation efforts offer hope for the preservation of Hawaiian insects.”
Read more about Dan’s lab.