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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER) SCIENCE
Cycle 2 (2012 Deadline)

Biodiversity of Cambodian leaf- and treehoppers: scientific training and education through development of bioindicators and agricultural pest control

PI: Sophany Phauk (Royal University of Phnom Penh)
U.S. Partner: Kevin Johnson (Illinois Natural History Survey)
Project Dates: August 2013 to July 2016

 Cambodia Partnership Picture A
A tree-hopper (Photo courtesy Dr. Phauk).

The Cambodian insect fauna is virtually unstudied, especially compared to the extensive work done on vertebrate biodiversity and management. This poses a problem because insects, comprising a much higher total biomass than vertebrates, constitute irreplaceable components of ecosystem processes and are thus vital for ecosystem health and function. This project is designed to address this shortcoming by inventorying the biodiversity of leaf- and treehoppers (Membracoidea) across space (i.e., all major habitat types and varying degrees of disturbance) and time (i.e., dry-/wet season over three consecutive years). Genetic and morphological characteristics will be used to identify species and allow further basic and applied research into membracoid biology and control. The collected samples will form the nucleus for a growing entomology collection at the National Cambodian Specimen Repository (NCSP) at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), which will be developed into an active research collection to support the study of systematics, biodiversity, and natural history of the insect fauna of the Lower Mekong. Assessing membracoid biodiversity will lay the baseline for continued biodiversity monitoring under climate change and help inform conservation decisions by allowing rapid and efficient appraisal of ecosystem health. The study of membracoid biodiversity will also provide the framework for the identification of pest species in Cambodia and thus will provide the basis for applied entomological research of national and international importance.
Membracoids include several important agricultural pests affecting rice, mango, and citrus, so the project will be critically important for Cambodian agriculture and food security by building the basis for development of sustainable pest control practices. The use of genetic markers will allow an in-depth understanding of pest population genetics and dynamics, which are important considerations when developing and applying control and management plans. Membracoids are ideal bioindicators since they are highly host specific and more rapidly respond to habitat or climate changes than vertebrate bioindicators. Identifying and using insect bioindicators thus allows a different and potentially much more sensitive insight into rapid changes in habitat health, biodiversity, or ecosystem function. The development of cheap and rapid genetic and morphological identification tools is expected to have immediate and lasting influences on biodiversity assessment and conservation practices in the Lower Mekong by improving economic valuation of ecosystems. This will strengthen environmental governance and improve sustainable management of natural resources and biodiversity conservation in the face of environmental and global climate change.

 Cambodia Partnership Picture B
A dozen undergraduates from the Royal University of Phnom Penh join the project team on a field trip to collect leaf- and tree-hopper samples at Kirirom National Park. (Photo courtesy Dr. Phauk).

Summary of Recent Activities
PI Sophany Phauk and two fellow researchers began fieldwork at the Seima Protection Forest and Biodiversity Conservation Area in October 2013. They inventoried the biodiversity of leaf- and treehoppers by collecting samples, preserving them in ethanol, and storing them at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) biology lab for morphology identification. With help from U.S. partner Chris Dietrich, some species were identified, but other samples went unidentified due to lack of resources and an identification key. All specimens were stored and are now awaiting morphological and DNA identification. In November 2013, the project team commenced more fieldwork. A dozen biology undergraduates accompanied the project team on an educational field trip to Kirirom National Park in the province of Kampong Speu, a prime habitat for leaf- and treehoppers. Later in the month, members of the main project team joined a survey team of 16 master’s degree students for their ecological field technique course. The survey was conducted in the semi-evergreen forest at the Tmar Roung ecotourism site in the province of Sihanouk Ville.
In early 2014, a group of 100 biology students from RUPP was expected to travel to Koh Ta Kiev Island in the province of Sihanouk Ville for ecological fieldwork. Project plans include conducting surveys every month to collect insects within every habitat type in Cambodia, including protected areas such as national parks, agricultural areas in and around Tonle Sap Lake, and the rice fields in southeast Cambodia. Later in the year, three members of the project team are scheduled to visit the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois.
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