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Drone helps discover rare plant on Kauai

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New populations of laukahi (Plantago princeps var. anomala) were discovered in May on the mountain peak at the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Limahuli Garden and Preserve on Kauai’s north shore.

The discovery of a critically endangered plant growing along the vertical cliff face of Mauna Pulou on Kauai is being called a “game changer” for field botanists, marking the first rare plant find made using drone technology in the Pacific region.

With the help of a camera-equipped DJI Mavic Pro, Ben Nyberg and a team of botanists found new populations of laukahi (Plantago princeps var. anomala) on the mountain peak at the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Limahuli Garden and Preserve on Kauai’s north shore in late May. The laukahi, an endemic relative of the plantain, was previously estimated at fewer than 25 individuals in the wild and was once used in Native Hawaiian herbal healing practices.

Nyberg, the lead drone pilot and a geographic information system specialist, said the plant was spotted 20 minutes into the flight. “We were sitting down at the bottom, flew up and saw something we were interested in,” he said, “(and then) flew right back up and confirmed it.”

Merlin Edmonds, a conservationist at NTBG who assisted in the discovery while training to be a drone pilot, said in a news release that the process would “usually take days of searching under life-threatening conditions.”

When exploring difficult-to-reach areas, field botanists normally have to be dropped off by helicopters and sometimes rappel down steep cliff faces, dangling more than 1,000 feet above ground while searching for rare plants.

“There are so many inaccessible areas, so it made a lot of sense to add (drone technology) to our toolbox,” Nyberg said.

The laukahi is one of the species targeted by the Plant Extinction Prevention Program, which collaborates with NTBG to conserve plants with fewer than 50 individuals in the wild. Botanists and researchers at the University of Hawaii, had mapped out potential areas to explore.

The NTBG plans to continue deploying drones, including a new DJI Phantom 4 Pro, to hard-to-reach locations for systematic surveys and to explore new areas, Nyberg said.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources announced plans to use unmanned aerial systems, or drones, to identify trees infected with rapid ohia death and to track the fungal disease’s spread on Hawaii island.

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