Skip to main content
Researchers exit a lava tube on Hualalai Volcano after spending three hours underground surveying the passages for unique cave fauna and collecting water samples. Photo credit: Annette Engel

University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences Professor Annette Engel is part of team studying subterranean biodiversity associated with lava tubes on the island of Hawai’i.

Engel has been named as a principal investigator on a four-year $1.29 million collaborative research grant from the National Science Foundation. Her collaborators on the project include Assistant Professor Rebecca Chong and Associate Professor Megan Porter from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa School of Life Sciences.

The overall scope of the collaboration is expected to result in several major advancements, including documenting and describing new species occurrences and distributions across the island, obtaining new ecological data on the contributions of the native ‘ōhi‘a tree to the lava tube ecosystems, and generating new genetic data for understanding the relationships among different cave species.

“My role on the project is to characterize the lava tube habitat ecology, coordinate and analyze the geochemistry data, map surface geology and other features above the lava tubes like tree distribution, and then to assist with museum record curation and displays,” said Engel.

While most of the analysis and research will be done in Hawaii, some research such as water chemistry and nutrient analyses will be done at UT. Engel explained that the project includes funding for graduate students to travel to Hawaii for field research.

The project has important outreach goals that include educating both the next generation of diverse scientists and the public about integrative biological research, through collaborative training for students and researchers, year-long cross-disciplinary research internships for undergraduate students, and public outreach programs for the local community with researchers at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum.

Engel is currently in Hawaii conducting this research through a one-year faculty development leave.

The History of Lava Tubes

On the island of Hawai‘i, continuous volcanic activities over hundreds of thousands of years created subterranean habitats known as lava tubes that are of different geologic ages. The lava tubes are occupied by communities of cave-adapted arthropod species such as planthoppers, millipedes, and spiders, which are sustained by the roots of ‘ōhi‘a trees.

The lava tube species on Hawai‘i are found nowhere else in the world. Ecological threats facing lava tubes are similar to threats facing native forests and other Hawaiian ecosystems, including urbanization, climate change, biodiversity loss, and the spread of invasive species and pathogens such as rapid ‘ōhi‘a death.

Recent exploration of lava tubes on Hawai‘i by the team and their collaborators has already uncovered species that are new to science and new distributions for species underground in different lava flows across the island.


Chris Schmitz (865-974-8304,

Amanda Womac (865-974-2992,