The Hawaiʻi Biological Survey:
A Bishop Museum Strategic Initiative to Document and Preserve Biodiversity

By Kenneth A. Hayes, Director of the Pacific Center for Molecular Biodiversity at Bishop Museum

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, first proposed as a celebration to honor the Earth and peace. Later, it was recognized internationally as a day to raise environmental awareness and promote the protection of the fragile ecosystems on which humanity, and all life on Earth, rely. In the coming century, humanity faces two critical, yet inextricably linked crises that threaten our existence: climate change and biodiversity loss.

(What is biodiversity and why is it important?)

Waterfalls at the base of Mt. Waialeale, Blue Hole, on the island of Kauai. This site is one of the few locations with remnant populations of the endangered Erinna newcombi, a species of freshwater snail found only on Kauai.

For more than 130 years, researchers, collection managers, and other staff at Bishop Museum have assembled natural history specimens and their stories from across the tropical Indo-Pacific, leading the discovery, documentation, and study of biodiversity critical to ecosystem functions and services (i.e. benefits they provide to humanity) in the region. Today, the Museum houses the largest collection of Pacific Island biodiversity in the world and ranks in the top 10 natural history museums internationally. The Museum’s Department of Natural Sciences continues to lead efforts to discover, describe, and conserve the plants, animals, and other organisms of the Pacific, and uses the more than 22 million natural history specimens housed in its collections to develop research priorities and inform conservation planning and actions in collaboration with federal, state, non-governmental, and private partners.

Each of Bishop Museum’s collections, centers, and initiatives contributes to our ongoing efforts to inventory millions of known, and as yet unknown, plant and animal species in the Pacific, and facilitate research needed to understand biodiversity’s role in sustaining natural environments and ecosystem resilience. Extensive and detailed knowledge of biodiversity, both past and present, is necessary to conserve and predict trends for the future. As such, natural history museums like Bishop Museum are on the frontline in the war to mitigate the catastrophic impacts from climate change and biodiversity loss.

Soon after its founding in 1889, Bishop Museum established programs to study and document the plants and animals of Hawai‘i, and that effort has grown to become the largest single source of information on Hawaiian organisms. Virtually all definitive published treatments and manuals of Hawaiian organisms, beginning with “Fauna Hawaiiensis” in 1901, have been produced by Bishop Museum or in close collaboration with Museum partners.

In a series of blog posts recognizing the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we are re-introducing our members and readers to some of Bishop Museum’s initiatives, centers, and collections in Natural Sciences, starting with one of our flagship initiatives, The Hawaiʻi Biological Survey. Subsequent posts will detail insights into the centers, collections, research activities, and staff of Natural Sciences at Bishop Museum, and the role these play in addressing fundamental questions about biodiversity loss, climate change, and sustainability across the Pacific.

Photo by Howard Hall – Ichthyology Sr. Curator Rich Pyle with the DeepSea submersible on a deep dive off the coast of Cocos Island (Guam) exploring the mesophotic zone.
Malacology land snail collection manager, Jaynee Kim, conducting genetic research on hosts of the Rat Lungworm to determine the parasites distribution in Hawaiʻi.

Hawaiʻi Biological Survey (HBS): In 1992, the Hawaiʻi State Legislature designated Bishop Museum as The Hawaiʻi Biological Survey (HBS), a program tasked with documenting the more than 23,000 species of plants, animals, and other organisms found throughout the Hawaiian archipelago. As a result of this initiative, Hawaiʻi was the first and only state in the U.S. with a complete checklist of the approximately 17,000 terrestrial, 500 freshwater, and 5,500 marine species of plants and animals found in our islands. Bishop Museum also conducts extensive expeditions for biodiversity discovery and documentation across the Pacific, a program designated the Pacific Biological Survey. Together, these strategic initiatives are a cornerstone of the Museum’s biodiversity discovery and documentation efforts.

The data from the HBS and PBS are used by Museum research staff in conjunction with collaborative partners throughout the Pacific to develop analytical tools needed to assess overall status and trends in abundance, health, and distribution of plants and animals, as well as the ecosystems upon which humans rely. Together, these efforts aim to manage and protect the areas of highest biological and cultural significance in the face of threats from climate change and biodiversity loss.

Each of Bishop Museum’s natural history collections contributes to HBS, providing specimens, expert knowledge, staffing for fieldwork, and management of the collected specimens to preserve the records and diversity effectively. Together, the Museum’s staff conducts a coordinated inventory and monitoring program that provides the data needed to assess the overall status and trends in the abundance, health, and distribution of plants and animals, as well as the ecosystems upon which they depend.

Undescribed Succinea sp. from Mt. Kaʻala, Oʻahu, discovered by Malacology researchers at Bishop Museum.
Macroalgae specimen, Kallymenia sessilis, from Bishop Museum Herbarium collection. This specimen was collected in Hilo Bay on Blonde Reef, Hawaiʻi.

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