Guam- A special project to find out how the absence of native birds on Guam is affecting the island’s forests has brought 3 universities together for the next four years.
The University of Guam has teamed up with Rice University and University of Washington for the second phase of “The Ecology of Bird Loss Project.” UOG Entomology Professor Ross Miller tells PNC the project is the brainchild of Dr. Haldre Rogers, who completed her PhD program at University of Washington and is currently a Huxley Fellow at Rice University. Miller is also the project’s co-principal investigator. He says this is a continuation of research being done on the effects the brown tree snake is having on local birds.
“Everybody knows that the brown tree snake ate a lot of Guam birds,” said Miller. “I think 11 species of it have been extirpated. But what is not known is what are the more subtle effects of getting rid of those birds, not having them present.”
He says this project tends to examine that unknown effect by looking at how the absence of birds that disperse seeds in the forest, like the Marianas Fruit Dove, affects how the forest recolonizes bare patches with other plants. Miller mentions part of their plan is to create patches in the forest and observe what grows there.
“It’s clearing small patches,” said Miller. “Very small patches and then just watching the recolonization process, in terms of the plants, looking at the birds that come into the area. What are they doing? What are they feeding on? What seeds are they eating? It’s interesting because we’re comparing what goes on in Saipan and Rota, where the native birds are still present, to Guam, where the system is really messed up.”
Miller notes Guam has a very abnormal situation because many people have grown up with native birds no longer present in the ecosystem.
He says Dr. Rogers and their team believe the absence of native birds is causing Guam’s forests to warm up because the birds aren’t there to help close up the forest canopy to keep it cool.
“The birds are the vectors that bring the seeds in to the area,” said Rogers. “The seeds then grow up and close up the canopy. Gap dynamics is a pretty interesting area all over the world. And it’s unique here to look at it in a system where the birds have been simply taken out of the system.”
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has already funded the first phase of the project and has agreed to fund the second phase, which started this past May. Miller says $600,000 has been dedicated for 4 years. Between the three universities, he mentions they are expecting 40 to 50 interns to participate, as well as local science teachers.
“With 600,000, that will be spread over 4 years to bring in interns, hire people at University of Guam, bring in faculty from Rice University and also University of Washington to work on this project,” said Miller.
He reiterates the goal of this project is to recognize the impact that birds have on Guam’s ecosystem and the ramifications of the brown tree snake. Miller says once they understand that system, the hope is to make educated recommendations on which birds to bring back to the island.
“What actually are the effects of having, of removing that group of organisms from a fairly fragile system?” asked Miller. “Tropical systems like ours are extremely fragile.”