Researchers Participate in Collaborative Project After Discovering New Species on Their Honeymoon

by | Apr 26, 2019 | Blog

Most newlyweds do not discover a new species while on their honeymoon.

That’s what happened in 2006 when Christy and Mike Slay were on the Big Island of Hawaii. Instead of lounging at the beach or taking advantage of an all-inclusive buffet at the hotel, the Slays were exploring cave tubes created by lava from a nearby volcano. Christy is director of technical alignment for The Sustainability Consortium, a global organization jointly administered by the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University, and Mike works for the Ozark Highlands Office of The Nature Conservancy. They are also University of Arkansas alumni and met while pursuing their graduate degrees in biological sciences.

Because of this discovery, the Slays, 13 years later, are part of a multi-institutional research project documenting and explaining several previously unknown species, mostly invertebrates such as the “thread-legged bug,” that live, thrive even, in the unique ecosystems of tunnel voids created by once-flowing magma. (Stop for second and try to imagine liquid fire so hot that it melts or dissolves everything in its path.)

 

Christy Slay inside lava tube cave. 

They collaborate with Megan Porter, biology professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and Annette Engel, professor of geochemistry at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Funded by the Cave Conservancy Foundation, the researchers are looking closely at cave habitats to understand how complex and diverse ecosystems thrive in the absence of light, similar to habitats and ecosystems at the very bottom of ocean trenches.

The Hawaiian Islands are the most remote islands on earth, so the team is also studying how long it took for these animals to adapt to the cave environment and who might be their closest relatives on Earth’s main continents.

 

Mike Slay in the middle of red lava. The material turns red when its iron composition oxides with oxygen in the air. The silver rock is likely composed of gypsum.

Recently, the researchers’ work was featured on a Honolulu television story, which included Mike Slay talking about the project and new species. The project was also featured on a PBS Nature documentary about volcanoes and the natural environment and life created by them. The Slays do not appear in the documentary (Porter and Engel do), but that did not dampen Christy Slay’s enthusiasm for the project.

“Mike and I are so thrilled that what started off as an idea on our honeymoon has expanded to include our friends and colleagues,” she said. “It’s a great excuse to see everyone twice a year in Hawaii and make some amazing new discoveries together. The PBS documentary captured the beauty of these rare cave animals and showed them to the world for the first time.”

The authors will eventually publish their findings in a research journal.

 

Thread-legged bug, a new species discovered by the researchers.

Last year, with co-authors from the World Resources Institute and the University of Maryland, Christy Slay published an article in Science stating that more than a fourth of global forest loss from 2001 to 2015 was permanent, meaning those areas likely will not return to forest. Christy Slay’s work on forests and cave animals has a surprising underground connection. The forests of Hawaii include the native Ohia tree. Found nowhere else on Earth, Ohia trees support cave life, as their roots are the main source of nutrients and habitat for the creatures the researchers found.

“Protecting forests protects these cave animals,” she says.

About The Author

Matt McGowan writes about research in the College of Engineering, Sam M. Walton College of Business, School of Law and other areas. He is the editor of Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. Reach him at 479-575-4246 or dmcgowa@uark.edu.

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