Maui News: 1967 Kipahulu expedition recounted by scientist

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Into the wild Kipahulu Valley Rainforest

In 1967, scientific expedition cast light on pristine ecosystem, assessed flora and fauna

The Maui News
April 16, 2017

Managing Editor

Drosophila grimshawi is one of the fruit flies found in the pristine Kipahulu Valley. — Photo courtesy of Ken Kaneshiro 

Fifty years ago, California biologist Richard Warner led a team of 28 scientists and local guides to explore and discover the scientific riches of the pristine upper Kipahulu Valley, a rainforest ecosystem that remains as it was before the arrival of Westerners to the islands hundreds of years ago.

He led the “Kipahulu Valley Expedition” from Aug. 2 to 31, 1967. The name of the trek conjures up images of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their “Corps of Discovery Expedition” and reporter Edward Malone and Professor Challenger finding dinosaurs on an expedition to the Amazon basin in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” and in the 1960 Irwin Allen movie by the same name.

Though on a much smaller scale than Lewis and Clark and discovering new fruit flies and a bird classified as extinct rather than dinosaurs, the expedition was the impetus for the Haleakala National Park to establish the Kipahulu Biosphere Reserve and for the Nature Conservancy to establish a Hawaii program. The expedition was commissioned as efforts were underway to expand the Kipahulu District of the park along the Oheo shoreline and into the valley.

The valley remains healthy “and is one of the last intact rainforests left in the Hawaiian Islands,” said park spokeswoman Polly Angelakis. Because of the reserve status, access to the upper valley is allowed by scientific permit only, as recommended by the expedition.

The reserve has been monitored periodically since 1967, and teams were in the valley earlier this year to assess vegetation, birds, insects, water and other resources, she said.

The Hawaii drosophila, or fruit flies, can be as much as 10 times the size of a cosmopolitan species found around the world, such as the drosophila melanogaster (left). The more common fruit files deposit larvae in fruit but in the Hawaiian rainforest, such as in the Kipahulu Valley, there is no large fruit. The Hawaii drosophila lay their eggs on plants or rotting fallen trees. They are so large, the Hawaii drosophila was observed being caught by a bird, which released it after the fly made a buzzing sound. — Photo courtesy of Ken Kaneshiro 

Haleakala National Park is throwing a spotlight on the expedition during its celebration of National Park Week that runs through April 23. At 1 p.m. Monday near the Kipahulu Visitor Center, Ken Kaneshiro, who was on the expedition, and Samuel Gon III from the Nature Conservancy will be speaking about the expedition.

The 74-year-old Kaneshiro was a 24-year-old master’s entomology student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and is listed as a member of the team in the Warner report on the expedition. He has established a respected career since the expedition, including postulating the “Kaneshiro Model of Sexual Selection,” a controversial theory that suggests that shifts in the sexual environment play a dominant role in the initial steps of species formation.

“Female choice is an extremely powerful force in the evolutionary process,” he said in an interview.

His biography on the UH Department of Biology website says he is the director of the Center for Conservation Research and Training and the Hawaiian Evolutionary Biology Program Center. He also is a director in the Hawaii Exemplary State Foundation, a statewide effort to have kindergarten-to-12th-grade students work with scientists and Native Hawaiian experts and practitioners to grow the state’s scientific knowledge about biodiversity and climate and environmental human health.

Kaneshiro spoke Thursday with The Maui News about his experiences on the expedition and how it impacted his life and research.

Beginnings of the expedition

Parts of the Kipahulu Valley, which reaches 7,350 feet up the southeast slopes of Haleakala, were already part of the national park when this survey was commissioned and sponsored by The Nature Conservancy, which provided a $5,000 grant, the expedition report said. Other participating organizations were the National Park Service; University of Hawaii departments of Entomology, Zoology and Botany; the Kipahulu Cattle Co.; the state Division of Fish and Game; the Bishop Museum; and the Foundation of Environmental Biology.

In the late 1960s, Laurence Rockefeller offered to donate 58 acres to the park along the shoreline by Oheo Gulch, valued at $585,000, if the Nature Conservancy could raise $592,000 to purchase the remaining 10,000 acres of the Kipahulu Valley, according to Angelakis and an interview with Dr. L. Martin Griffin, an expedition member, in the publication Honolulu in November 1968.

The objectives of the expedition included assessments of the scientific value of the valley and recommendations for its acquisition.

The monthlong trek was “the upper valley’s first known large-scale scientific expedition,” said Angelakis. Scientists documented 223 species of which only 23, or 10 percent, were introduced — evidence of a mostly untouched ecosystem — and four rare birds, including the Maui Nukupuu, listed as extinct by the Interior Department.

“The wide variety of plant communities available in a relatively short distance, which could be preserved in Kipahulu would offer unparalleled research opportunities,” said botanist Charles Lamoureux in the report. “Kipahulu . . . offers an opportunity not available elsewhere on this planet.”

“The unique opportunity to understand the evolutionary process through genetic study of Hawaiian drosophila can hardly be overemphasized,” said evolutionary geneticist Hampton Carson. “Nowhere else in the world does such an opportunity exist.”

The conservancy was convinced and raised the money. The land was accepted into the park by the U.S. Interior Department in 1969.

Going up to base camp

Most scientists worked for only portions of the monthlong expedition. Base camps were set up at the 3,100-, 4,100- and 6,500-foot levels. Food and supplies were brought up periodically; at higher elevations only dried food was used to reduce weight and bulk packed in.

Warner reported no serious injuries for the team, except for colds and digestive issues. He noted that cuts and abrasions were susceptible to infection because they took longer to heal.

Kaneshiro, who was with the Hawaiian Drosophila Project, a joint effort by UH and the University of Texas, spent Aug. 7 to 10 at the first base camp. He was supposed to hike up a day earlier but rain washed out that attempt.

It was an exciting time for Kaneshiro “because it was unexplored,” he recalled. “We were pretty excited to be able to discover some new species, which we did.”

They were driven up in a four-wheel-drive vehicle through pastureland to the edge of the forest near Palikea. Any notions that this expedition was going to be like finding Shangri-La were quickly dispelled.

It was raining, a foot in a 24-hour period; he was nearly swept away while crossing a raging stream; and it was muddy. 

“The hike was very difficult because of the slippery conditions,” Kaneshiro recalled. “We were going uphill all the time. . . . We would take one step and slide back two steps.”

He could not remember how long the hike was, but Griffin said it took four hours for him to reach the first base camp.

When he reached the base camp, which was in the middle of the rainforest, Kaneshiro unpacked in a two-person tent. There was 2 to 3 inches of mud and water on the ground, so the guides suggested laying hapuu ferns on the ground to stay dry.

Great idea to stay dry, but Kaneshiro would learn that pigs like to forage in the hapuu.

“Sometime in the middle of the night, we heard the pigs rooting around,”Kaneshiro recalled. “They started to root on our hapuu. One started bumping my head.”

Kaneshiro worried that the pigs would barge through the thin netting at the entrance to the tent.

“They were big,” he said. “When they started to root that became really scary. . . . If one of those pigs got inside with us it would have been dangerous.”

Kaneshiro grabbed a machete and went outside and scared the pigs away.

“They disappeared,” he said. “It was hard to go back to sleep after that.”

Work in the rainforest

Kaneshiro’s job focused on setting up traps to capture drosophila samples. The bait was Gerber baby banana food and fresh mushrooms, both inoculated with yeast and allowed to sit for a week.

“It is the most god-awful-smelling stuff, but that is what the flies are attracted to,” he said.

Because the drosophila project was interested in behavior and evolution, the goal was to bring the flies back alive, he said. A fun fact about Hawaiian drosophila: Because the rainforest lacks large fruit to lay eggs in, like mango for the non-native species, the Hawaiian drosophila lays eggs in fallen rotten branches of certain native plants, leaves, fungi and even the eggs of spiders in “very unique adaptations,” Kaneshiro said.

So he smeared the bait in plant species associated with the fruit flies using a wooden tongue depressor. The rain washed the bait off in some places, but the expedition still was able to collect 22 species of Hawaiian drosophila — 10 of them new species.

To keep them alive, Kaneshiro put the flies in sugar vials, which contained a Karo syrup and agar solution on blotter paper.

Kaneshiro also served as drosophila identifier for scientists unfamiliar with the local flies. He had characteristics of 400 flies memorized.

The Hawaiian drosophila

“We have the largest drosophila population in size and number” in the world, Kaneshiro said. A total of 550 species have already been named and described and another 250 to 300 are in the lab awaiting description. His “conservative estimate” is that there are 1,000 species of the Hawaiian drosophila.

This “explosive speciation” is the result of adaption to the environment, he said. In addition of the varied locations for egg-laying, the Hawaiian fruit fly is 10 times larger than the typical non-native mango-infesting fruit fly. The size evolution may be a defensive mechanism. During the expedition, they noticed a Hawaiian drosophila caught by a bird. The fly buzzed and the bird let go, he recalled.

The Hawaiian drosophila also has a longer lifespan. The mango-loving fruit fly lives for 10 days from egg to mature adult. The Hawaiian fruit flies have a two-month lifespan — and individual flies have been kept alive for almost a year in the lab, said Kaneshiro.

“They are long-lived,” he said.

Their long lives make them ideal candidates for evolutionary behavioral observation. Kaneshiro pointed out that Darwin developed his theory of natural selection in the Galapagos Islands.

“In fact, the Hawaiian Islands are better for understanding the evolutionary process,” he said.

Theory of sexual selection

The extended lives of individual fruit flies helped Kaneshiro to examine mating systems and how female flies choose male flies.

He came up with a theory that bears his name, the “Kaneshiro Model of Sexual Selection,” which applies to species at the beginning of formation. It’s a complicated theory but in broad terms it challenges the idea that “choosy females” will select “stud males” to mate with as part of natural selection.

He said it was a pretty controversial theory when it first came out in the mid-1970s.

Kaneshiro argues that such a coupling will result in a limited gene pool that may be unable to withstand environmental calamity. In addition, if environmental change wipes most of a species, a choosy female may not find an appropriate male to mate with to continue the species.

Species are better served by “not-so-choosy females” mating with stud males, which do 70 to 80 percent of the mating, to provide a “widespread genetic variability,” he said. “You get a population that can adapt to drought and a wide range of environmental conditions,” he said.

Looking back at the expedition

His experiences those four days in the Kipahulu Valley provided Kaneshiro with a new empathy for the species fighting for survival in the wild.

“Once we were up there, we were up there for three to four days, living in those conditions,” he said.

During research in the Waikamoi rainforest on the other side of Haleakala, scientists would drive in with a four-wheel drive vehicle, and, if got too rainy, they would drive out to their hotel. He couldn’t do that in Kipahulu.

It was “an eye-opener” to experience the harsh conditions, he said.

“It made me better understand the native ecosystem and what these native populations have to adapt to . . . and to survive and to evolve,” Kaneshiro said.

The expedition leader’s thoughts

Warner called for the purchase and preservation of the valley. He said that the opportunity to purchase the land may not come again because “land hunger in Hawaii” is growing.

“Areas formerly considered of no value are experiencing increased pressure as new agricultural practices are developed and the demand for residential and vacation properties grows,” he said in the report. “The area assumes an importance that justifies our most dedicated and persistent efforts toward its permanent protection.”

At the end of expedition, Warner described leaving the valley.

“On 30 August, we climbed out of the valley and descended into Haleakala Crater, spending the night at Paliku Cabin. On 31 August, we hiked down Kaupo Gap to the road head where vehicles were waiting, and returned to Kipahulu where we brought the expedition to a proper and fitting close with a traditional Hawaiian luau or feast.”

* Lee Imada can be reached at