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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

A brief project documentary produced by Dr. Phauk and the project team.
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.
Summary of Recent Activities

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).

By the end of September 2015, Dr. Phauk and his team had conducted insect inventories and surveys at 101 sampling sites in various habitat types ranging from evergreen forests to agricultural sites. Two new intensive study sites have been added. One is located in Phnom Kulen National Park (N13° 32.150’, E104° 07.061’) in Siem Reap Province and the other is in Tatai Commune (N11° 35.374’, E103° 19.066´) in Koh Kong Province. To date on the project, more than 70,000 wet and dried prepared specimens and more than 7,000 dried specimens of Membracoidea and other insect groups have been mounted and stored at the Entomological Collection in the Department of Biology at RUPP. Morphological identification is being conducted using 31 interactive keys and a taxonomic database from the lab of the U.S. co-partner, Dr. Christopher Dietrich, as well as various web-based insect taxonomy databases and social entomology groups. In addition, specific group of insects were categorized by the Cambodian Entomology Initiatives (CEI) team, including Membracidae, Cicallelidae, Formicidae, and Fulgoridae. Due to the increasing number of specimens in the collection, 140 handmade insect drawers have been built for storage.

On the outreach and education front, 10 to 15 undergraduate students from the RUPP Department of Biology and others took part in the insect field collection training efforts every month. The CEI Facebook page has reached more than 1000 fans in the past six months, and the activities of this project were also promoted by a September 2015 posting on the Facebook page of the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia. Moreover, CEI filmed a short documentary entitled “Building Research Capacity of Cambodian Entomology” ( to encourage and promote entomological research in Cambodia. The team was also honored to receive a visit by officials from the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. In addition, a news article entitled “Cambodian Entomology Initiatives: Development of Scientific Training and Education” will be published in the next issue of the Cambodian Journal of Natural History.

CEI currently has 12 staff, 9 of whom are undergraduate and graduate students who provide research assistance on a volunteer basis. Two graduate students are working on their theses related to the Cicadellidae in agriculture and forestry under the supervision of the PI, co-PI, and U.S. collaborators. In addition, two third-year undergraduate students will be selected to volunteer with CEI every year. To improve entomology research capacity in Cambodia, five students from CEI’s team were selected to participate in a short training visit July 31 to August 20, 2015, at the Faculty of Forestry at Kasetsart University, Thailand. The objectives of the training were to learn methods of collecting of other insect groups, to carry out collaborative research, and to exchange experience with Thai student counterparts.

The PI, Dr. Sophany Phauk, won a fellowship to spend three months (October through December 2015) as a research scholar with Dr. Christopher H. Dietrich at the Illinois Natural History Survey. This opportunity is supported by the ASEAN – United States mission, through the Fulbright Visiting Scholar program. Although Dr. Phauk is away from Cambodia on his research visit, the team back at RUPP will continue working on insect collection and identification manuals and checklists, and at least two manuscripts on project results are expected to be submitted for publication. The students will continue working on collection and identification activities, and the team may also organize a national entomology training workshop after Dr. Phauk’s return (tentatively in February 2016).

 Cambodian Entomology Initiatives flyer

 Rice-Field Experiment flyer

 Genetics Experiment flyer (Khmer)


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