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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
From January 27 to 29, 2014, a group of 100 fourth-year biology students from the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) took part in an ecological field technique course at Koh Ta Kiev Island. The students were divided into four groups: one for a geological survey of the island, one on insects, one on mangrove forests, and one on marine ecology. Each group took a turn in experiencing all methods of ecological fieldwork. PI Dr. Sophany Phauk and fellow researchers on the PEER project served as trainers for the insect component of the course. As the project continued in February and March, two project members and two students surveyed leaf- and treehopper insects at Phum Thnot, a village about 30 km from Phnom Penh. So far, field survey efforts on the project have resulted in the collection of 148 species, which are being identified using online resources and with guidance from U.S. co-partner Dr. Chris Dietrich. A small entomological collection is being created at the offices of the Department of Biology at RUPP. The project should be done by May 2014 with the installation of three cabinets holding 100 drawers’ worth of samples.
 
Over the next few months, monthly surveys to collect insects in various Cambodian habitat types will continue. Dr. Phauk and two members of his project team will visit U.S. partner Dr. Kevin Johnson at the Illinois Natural History Survey June 15-July 5, with the purpose of building their capabilities in insect collection techniques and morphological and genetic means of species identification. Dr. Dietrich has also been invited to visit RUPP. In addition, the project will be holding a workshop and training session on leaf- and treehopper diversity in Cambodia, aimed at university-level students.
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