Rebecca Cann

University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Rebecca Cann has spent decades researching and tallying data on the genetic transformation of Hawaii’s native bird species. As a professor of cell and molecular biology at UH since 1986, Cann has been taking many deep breaths the past few years, doing her best to remain patient with recent documented developments at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge on the Big Island.

In an effort to reforest Mauna Kea, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of Hawaii began planting new trees, yet over the course of the past five to 10 years this reforestation has solicited an increase in Japanese whiteeye birds, which once co-existed with native Hawaiian birds, but now with their steady influx may be contributing to bizarre genetic changes to the native bird species.

Documented in Cann and Leonard Freed’s paper, Changes in timing, duration and symmetry of molt of Hawaiian forest birds, the Hawaiian bird population is having a tough time overcoming growth and breeding hardships.

“Japanese white-eye can adapt to these new plants, but the native birds have to wait until the trees get big enough for nesting and eating. What has happened is the USFWS has created an attractive nuisance,” says Cann, who was featured on MidWeek‘s cover March 19, 1997, for her work with mitochondrial DNA found in all humans today. Her conclusion is that we all come from the same “mitochondrial Eve” in Africa 200,000 years ago, which garnered a Time magazine cover story.

Growing pains for native Hawaiian bird species include avian malaria, a widely disproportionate male to female ratio, and even widespread lice contamination and food deprivation. The most harmful and exhausting ailments which are compromising survival rates for these native birds is that since their molting, or feather replacement activity, is lengthened, it is now overlapping with the birds’ normally partitioned breeding time, which is consequently taking a toll on the balance of their fragile development.

“Normally they try to keep their feathers symmetrical, but we started to see a significant imbalance in the feathers they were losing, which causes changes in the air dynamics of how they fly, which means they cannot maneuver as effectively or escape predators like hawks,” says Cann, who cannot explain the exact reasoning for the birds’ genetic troubles as the USFWS will not permit her or other scientists to conduct research at Hakalau.

Cann realizes that working in conservation is a long-term process, and although she is a bit frustrated by the situation, she isn’t about to give up.

“What we are doing now is counting these birds down to extinction,” she says. “We are talking about saving what is real in Hawaii. People come from all over the world to see these unique organisms, but the guys who are supposed to be in charge with protecting them aren’t doing a super job. I am going to keep fighting because it is worth it.”