Emerging Fungal Disease Kills Thousands Of Ohia Trees Native To Hawaii

Dec 28, 2015 01:00 PM EST

An emerging tree fungus has killed hundreds of thousands of Hawaii's iconic and native ohia lehua trees. Researchers say these trees are critical not only to the island's water supply, but also to endangered native birds and cultural traditions like hula. 

This disease -- rapid ohia death (ROD) -- was first detected in 2014 in the forests of Puna. Since last year alone, the fungus has affected 50 percent of the ohia trees across 6,000 acres of forest, and continues to rapidly spread. Although it has only been documented in Big Island forests, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) has warned ROD could potentially spread across the state.

"ROD is caused by a fungus called Ceratocystis fimbriata. This disease is new to Hawaii and the strain of fungus infecting ohia, has never been described before," Dr. J.B. Friday, of the University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service, said in a news release. "While apparently only impacting Big Island forests currently, this has the potential of spreading statewide, so it's critically important we do everything to stop it."

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Once infected with this fungal disease, a mature tree can die within two weeks, experts say. To help minimize the spread of the fungus, state and federal agencies have partnered to create potential treatments. 

"Ohia trees cover more than one million acres statewide and ohia is widely considered the most important forest tree in Hawaii," Chair Suzanne Case of the states DLNR added in the release. "They are so important for protecting our forest watersheds that it's necessary our approach to combating this disease involves the highest levels of government and includes non-government agencies and private partners that can provide additional resources and expertise."

Ohia trees are vital to local ecosystems because they replenish the earth's water supply and act as a food source for endangered birds. Furthermore, the Hawaiian culture relies heavily on the trees, using their wood to make weapons, hula instruments, homes and (in the past) temples in ancient Hawaii.

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