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Hawaii is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world. Most native plant populations of the islands, however, are considered critically endangered. Alex Loomis, a Ph.D. candidate in biology, is looking for ways to conserve and reintroduce native plant species to the state.

“Most of Hawaii is covered with non-native species, and our native species live in these remnant patches of native forest, dry shrubland, and coastal strand ecosystems,” he said. 

Alex Loomis poses with the plants he's working to save
Alex Loomis developed an interest in plant conservation during high school while growing up in Hawaii. (Photo courtesy of Loomis)

Loomis, who was born and raised in Hawaii, became interested in plant conservation as a teenager.

“I began to care in high school when I was hiking,” he said. “I really learned about how threatened some of these species were. I kind of took it personally and decided to make a career out of it.”

His research investigates the relationship between native plant populations and invasive species. The presumption is that non-native species only have a negative impact on the native population, but Loomis said that it’s much more complicated.

“There's actually positive effects of these alien species on the remaining native plants and populations I'm working on,” he said. “And that's not to say that they're good, but it is to say that where those native plants are left, there are some cases where there's something about the alien plants that are actually helping them.”

Working with the Plant Extinction Prevention Program (PEPP) and the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Loomis planted two populations of Schiedea adamantis, a critically endangered plant, and collected demographic data to compare wild populations with reintroduced ones. These plantings and subsequent data collection are important in plant conservation because these methods will eventually help re-establish a larger population of plants.

“I strive for research that’s scientifically robust but has direct conservation outcomes,” Loomis said. 

While Loomis’ work focuses on the more common plants relative to the Hawaiian genus Schiedea (in the Caryophyllaceae family), all 34 species in the genus are considered at-risk. Most of them are federally listed as endangered. He said that the difference between common and rare doesn’t mean much.

“Most of them are actually the more common species in the genus, but more common for a Hawaiian plant is still pretty darn rare,” Loomis said.

Loomis chose this genus due to pre-existing research on its evolutionary background. The Schiedea has been studied by Steve Weller and Ann Sakai from the University of California at Irvine, with whom Loomis also works.

Along with support from local groups and other institutions, Loomis works in biology professor Bill Morris’s lab, granting him a unique situation that allows him to work in both an academically challenging environment at Duke and in Hawaii with conservation partners. 

“There's a history in our lab of lots of people working all over the world, on plant species, nobody works in the same place in our lab,” Loomis said. “Everybody kind of comes back together at Duke and uses the same sort of statistical tools and demographic modeling techniques to ask similar questions.”

Research fellowships provided by Duke have also been crucial in his work, Loomis said.

“The summer fellowships have been critical for me to be able to collect [data] because what I do is I measure the same plants over and over again for years,” he said.

Loomis said he would like to continue collecting data on these plant species in Hawaii after earning his Ph.D., as he wants to give back to his home. Loomis’ success in reintroducing Schiedea adamantis will continue to be managed by the state of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources and the PEPP.

“My long-term plan is to be in Hawaii and engage the community,” he said. “I find it really rewarding to be able to show somebody this plant and let them say that they did something to help it.”

Top photo: An outplanted Schiedea adamantis (flowering plant in front) in Kului gulch on Oahu. (Photo courtesy of Alex Loomis)