Identification of roots in lava tube caves using molecular techniques: implications for conservation of cave arthropod faunas

Francis G. Howarth
Shelley A. James
Wendy McDowell

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Lava tube cave ecosystems on the volcanic islands of Hawai‘i support communities of rare and highly specialized cave arthropods. In these cave ecosystems, plant roots, both living and dead, provide the main energy source for cave animals. Loss of deep-rooted plants over caves will affect populations of cave-adapted animals living below. Furthermore, the loss of native plant species will likely eliminate host specific cave animals. Thus, identification of plant roots currently found in caves is necessary for the development of effective management actions that encourage the growth of appropriate deep-rooted plant species, thereby protecting the underlying cave ecosystem. We used molecular techniques to identify plant roots found within cave ecosystems on the islands of Maui and Hawai‘i. Sequences of the internal transcribed spacer (ITS) regions and the 5.8S gene of nuclear ribosomal DNA from cave roots were compared to sequences of known plant species either collected on the surface over the footprint of each cave or to sequences accessioned in GenBank. Roots in the cave ecosystem studied on Maui belonged to two alien tree species: Eucalyptus tereticornis and Grevillea robusta. Within the Hawai‘i cave ecosystem, roots of two plant species were identified: the alien tree G. robusta and the native vine Cocculus orbiculatus. The Maui cave ecosystem supports populations of at least 28 species of arthropods, including eight that are blind obligate cave inhabitants. The Hawai‘i cave ecosystem supports 18 arthropod species, of which three are cave-adapted. Creating protected reserves around biologically significant caves, controlling, and preventing the introduction of harmful invasive plant species within the cave footprint, and encouraging the establishment of deep-rooted native plant species is essential for the continued survival of the unique ecosystems found within Hawaiian lava tube cave systems.