Apr 11

Saving Hawaii’s Ferns

When people think of Hawaii, they often conjure the island state’s tropical forests, filled with profusions of brightly colored blooms against lush, green backdrops. Parts of it seem so untouched and primordial, that one might be lulled into believing it is a paradise that will always remain unchanged.

Unfortunately, that’s far from the case. In fact, Hawaii has more endangered plant species than all the rest of the lower 48 states put together. So, when a paper was published in American Fern Journal about a project helmed by Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium to bring back a Bermudian fern that had been extinct in the wild for more than 100 years, Hawaiian conservation officials sat up and took notice.

“They contacted me in December, to ask if we would work on an endangered Hawaiian fern of the same genus as the Bermuda fern,” says Marge From, director of plant conservation at the zoo. “We feel honored to be asked by the state of Hawaii, because they do have a pretty extensive endangered plant program. Generally, we get asked by other countries that can't complete scientific research. It's good for the zoo to be able to say we're working with other U.S. states on their endangered species, as well.”

The project is still in the preparation stages, but From hopes to begin experiments in May. ”Ferns produce spores, not seeds, so we will do both microscopic work and viability studies,” says From of the process, noting that the two known places where the endangered ferns grow are so mountainous and remote that it’s difficult for her Hawaiian collaborators to collect samples. “No one has been able to propagate this fern in Hawaii, so it will take a series of experiments, and modifications for each experiment we run on them.”

By year’s end, she hopes, they will have some young plants. “There are no guarantees with scientific research, but we plan on taking some immature plants back to Hawaii in the next year or two. They would still be in vitro, so we don't transfer any pathogens, and then they would have to stay for a time in a greenhouse, under careful care, to get them acclimated to the outdoors. They have to be totally compatible with the wild population.”

From says that, like all endangered species, these ferns can be difficult, but the program will be a success if they can get even a few plants to survive in the wild. “In Bermuda, we had circumstances that offered a razor-thin chance of success, and now we’re seeing those plants surviving in the wild for the first time in 100 years. We started in 2003, and it took a long time to get the plants back into the wild. We’re hoping that, now that we’ve developed the protocols, it won’t take so long this time.” She also believes that their success with this one species of fern might pave the way for future plant conservation collaborations.

The Hawaiian partnership is working on a very limited budget, and they are trying to obtain a small grant to cover expenses, such as soil tests. “We would very much like to bring a researcher from Hawaii here, or be able to go there to see the habitat, but it’s not in the budget,” From explains. Then she adds, hopefully, “I'm sure there are people who will read this who have lots of interest in Hawaii. Maybe some would be interested in securing the future of a plant species that lives there.”

To find out how you can support Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium’s partnership with the state of Hawaii, please visit our website, or call 402-738-2073.