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UH Hilo professor wins $70K prize in Ohia Challenge

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    Closeup of a ohia blossom unfurling.


    Ryan Perroy, an associate professor at UH Hilo, is the winner of the Ohia Challenge. Perroy, center, is standing next to Stanton Enomoto of the Department of the Interior’s Office of Native Hawaiian Relations, left, and Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park ecologist David Benitez.

Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park today announced that Ryan Perroy, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, is the winner of the Ohia Challenge, which comes with a $70,000 prize.

Perroy won the challenge with his innovative strategy using unmanned aircraft systems and remote sensing devices to detect the fungi behind rapid ohia death.

The challenge this year — presented by Conservation X Labs in partnership with the National Park Service and others — asked applicants to creative innovative, low-cost solutions to detecting the invasion pathways and spread of the fungi causing rapid ohia death.

Perroy was one of 56 applicants around the globe who responded to the challenge.

He proposed using high-resolution cameras and other sensors to improve early detection of rapid ohia death across forests, including areas where signs of the fungal blight may not yet be visible to the naked eye.

The technology would buy forest managers precious time to respond to outbreaks, and give scientists better information on how the disease spreads.

In addition, Perroy, proposed the use of a drone to collect samples from the canopy of suspect trees for laboratory analysis, thus increasing the chances of detection, and saving the time and effort required by ground sampling in often challenging environments.

“The ecological and cultural importance of ohia cannot be overstated,” said Volcanoes National Park ecologist David Benitez in a news release. “We were encouraged by the many high-quality submissions we received for this challenge, and by the support and interest it generated in Hawaii and around the world. Innovative solutions such as Dr. Perroy’s are a key to stopping the spread of rapid ohia death and saving our cherished ohia for future generations.”

Since 2014, rapid ohia death has decimated hundreds of thousands of mature ohia lehua, or Metrosideros polymorpha, trees on Hawaii island. State officials had only detected rapid ohia death on Hawaii island until May 2018, when they found it in the Moloa‘a Forest Reserve on Kauai.

This month, state officials detected rapid ohia death for the first time on a lone tree on Maui.

Rapid ohia death is caused by two fungal species: Ceratocystis lukuohia and Ceratocystis huliohia. The former is the more aggressive of the two strains, and causes a systemic wilt that can kill a tree within weeks.

Benitez announced Perroy as the winner this afternoon at the 26th Hawaii Conservation Conference at the Hawai‘i Convention Center.

Benitez also awarded honorable mentions to Lauralea Oliver of K9inSCENTive LLC and Miguel Castrence of Resource Mapping Hawaiʻi. Oliver proposed using trained dog-handler teams to detect the fungal blight. Castrence proposed using fixed wing airplanes and high-resolution sensors to map rapid ohia death across large areas.

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