Hawaii Couple Reestablishes Ancient Plant Species

Climate change threatens many of the world's native plant species on Kaua'I, Hawaii's oldest island. But a husband and wife are leasing the land around an ancient cave in hopes of re-creating a lost world.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next we're going to rewrite a classic Hollywood plot. The movie starts with a safari of badly dressed scientists. They stumble into a prehistoric jungle where man-eating creatures, supposedly extinct, kill off the minor characters. When the movie in question was "Jurassic Park," some scenes were shot in the Hawaiian island of Kauai. And it turns out that on that same island, real scientists are fighting to save species from extinction. We'll learn more this morning in our series Climate Connections with National Geographic.

In the second of two reports from Hawaii's oldest island, NPR senior correspondent Ketzel Levine meets a husband and wife team recreating a lost world.

KETZEL LEVINE: We're standing at the bottom of a giant terrarium contained by rising cliffs that frames an oval of sky. These cliffs used to support the roof of a massive limestone cave, part of which still exists. And that's how we got in here, by crawling through. In the 10,000 years since the cave collapsed, a museum's worth of ancient creatures have died and decayed in here. Mammals, birds, the trees they perched on, the pollen those trees shed - an endless story for an avid reader like Lida Pigott Burney.

Ms. LIDA PIGOTT BURNEY (Calder Ecology Center): We've been looking for the perfect site for a very long time because many sites preserve bones very well. Many other sites preserve pollen and the seeds very well. This is a site that preserves both. And it also has a complete record for almost 10,000 years.

LEVINE: Now, here's a thrill-seeking scientist who looks the part; hiking shorts with a lot of pockets, off-road sandals, floppy straw hat. Lida met her future husband David Burney over a microscope in a college lab back in the late '60s, pollen twinkling in both their eyes. On their first trip to Kauai in 1992, snooping around as ever for fossil sites, the couple followed a trail of footprints off the beach and into the woods. And just like in the movies, they stumbled onto a lost world entombed in the hidden recesses of this Mokawaii(ph) cave.

Dr. DAVID BURNEY (National Tropical Garden, Kauai): Land crabs, native land snails, flightless birds that were feeding on the ground. Nearly all the things I'm describing, of course, are absent from here now, but they're all present as fossils just under our feet.

LEVINE: So the Burneys came back again and again to dig and to dream of bringing this ancient piece of Kauai back to life.

Dr. BURNEY: So we're going to pump out all these icky water now so that we can get down in the pit to work.

(Soundbite of pump engine)

Dr. BURNEY: We need to keep the pump running until the very minute we go in because once we cut it off, then it's just like a giant toilet bowl that starts to fill up again.

LEVINE: Would you hold that while I strap up?

Dr. BURNEY: All right.

LEVINE: We put on helmets. There could be falling rocks. And climb 14 feet down into a bubble bath of lime green duckweed. David Burney has made this trip at least 5,000 times.

Dr. BURNEY: Here we go down to the netherworld.

LEVINE: All right.

Dr. BURNEY: All right. You're here down in the land of mud and water.

LEVINE: So I might describe the scene a little bit. You're up to your calves in muck, but you're wearing a pair of rubber boots. I'm crouched on a ladder. And you are taking large scoops of dark, dark sulfurous smelling mud and throwing it in the white bucket.

Dr. BURNEY: Mm-hmm. The stuff we're digging right now is just about at the moment in time when people first arrived here. Probably about 1,100 years ago.

LEVINE: Those were the days to be a native plant, before the fall; before people arrived with predators, pests and weeds were scattered and destroyed communities of living things, species that had evolved so perfectly over five million years. Now the last scattered fragments of that world are threatened with extinction by climate change. And that adds a certain urgency to the Burneys' work. Not only do they still have to discover what's been lost, they have to determine what can be saved.

Dr. BURNEY: The big toilet bowl is filling up.

Ms. BURNEY: Let's get you out of there.

Dr. BURNEY: Okay.

LEVINE: David Burney lifts his 70-pound muck bucket out of the pit and hauls it over to his wife, waiting with hoses and screens.

Ms. BURNEY: And what I'm trying to get at right here is a Wikstroemia seed. The Hawaiians used it as fish poisoning.

LEVINE: So you're using tweezers to get in...

Ms. BURNEY: I'm using a pair of tweezers because the seed is so small, I can't pick it out with my hands.

Got it.

LEVINE: Wikstroemia is Akia in Hawaiian, and it's still pretty common on Kauai, unlike a number of the other plants, whose seeds the Burneys have yet to identify. This ain't Jurassic Park. They're not resurrecting extinct species. But they have identified rare plants long gone from Kauai that are still clinging to life on other islands. And they're using them to replant this lost Eden.

Ms. BURNEY: Let's find some seeds here, guys.

LEVINE: Consider the loulu palm, Pritchardia aylmer-robinsonii. After finding and identifying its seed in a bucket of muck, the Burneys learned there are only two of these palms left in the world and they live on a nearby private island. The island's owner gave them viable seed, which they then grew in pots until the plants were strong enough to go back into the ground. And you should see these magnificent specimens. The little palms put in the ground five years ago are now three stories high. And for the first time in at least a thousand years, they are back where they belong.

Dr. BURNEY: So this is a chance in a way to step into the midst of a mass extinction and try to bring it to a halt, at least for some species.

LEVINE: This sunken botanic garden is just one strategy on the frontline of conservation that is the Hawaiian Islands. The Burneys have several tricks up their sleeves, including a native plant farm known as Lida's Field of Dreams, a sort of boot camp where native species bulk up before shipping out to reclaim lost ground.

David Burney's day job is director of Conservation for the National Tropical Botanical Garden here on Kauai. But right now both the cave and farm, which sit on private property, are solely the Burneys'. They lease the land. Their hope is that the botanical garden will someday take that lease over. But right now the couple is working overtime.

Ms. BURNEY: You all knows what extinct means, right?

Unidentified Child: Dead and gone forever.

Ms. BURNEY: That's a great definition. I like that. Dead and gone forever.

LEVINE: Their commitment notwithstanding, the Burneys are no match for climate change or invasive species, tourism, development - all the things that threaten Hawaii's vulnerable native species. That's a job for an army of conservationists, and even then it's an unwinnable war. But this half acre terrarium beneath an oval of sky is all it takes to give those who are willing to look a memory and a moment of primordial green.

Ms. BURNEY: Oh, I think that would be perfect. If they looked at it and thought that a human hand had never touched it, then I think we could really feel like we had done our job.

LEVINE: Ketzel Levine, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: To find Part 1 of Ketzel's series and photos of the people and plants featured, stop by her blog, where it is all Hawaii, all week. It's at npr.org/talkingplants.

This is NPR News.

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