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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 December 2016

Project Website:

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).

Over the course of this project, which ended as of December 31, 2016, Dr. Sophany Phauk and his large team of researchers and students conducted temporal biodiversity inventory assessments of Membracoidea in every habitat type and along various grades of disturbance in Cambodia. As a result, they were able to assess the temporal biodiversity of not only Membracoidea but also other insect groups in most habitat types, from agricultural land to national parks, covering more than 120 collecting sites in Cambodia. They have developed an extensive national entomology collection under the auspices of their newly created organization Cambodian Entomology Initiatives (CEI) and honed the curatorial skills of the 15 team members, who have gained valuable experience working with Membracoidea and other groups such as Lepidoptera, Coleoptera, Hymenoptera, Phasmatodea, and other arthropods. Through the PEER project, they also gained expertise in identifying indicator species for habitat health and/or disturbance, allowing rapid classification of habitat value for conservation and ecosystem services. A taxonomic study of insect pest species was another important component of the project, and the researchers have identified a genus of Nephotettix and Nilaparvata that are dominant taxa in rice paddies and other agricultural sites.

Participation in PEER also greatly enhanced the international linkages of the PI and his team. PEER funds supported a month-long training visit in 2014 by three team members to the lab of U.S. partner Dr. Chris Dietrich at the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2015, with support from the Fulbright visiting research scholar program, Dr. Phauk had the opportunity to spend three months with Dr. Dietrich for additional training and collaboration. During that stay, he received training on advanced classification techniques for Membracoidea and worked with his partner on developing an entomology curriculum that was included in the overall undergraduate study program of the RUPP Department of Biology in late 2016. While in the United States, Dr. Phauk also made a brief visit to the Smithsonian Institution, where he established a working relationship with Dr. Stuart McKamey, a Membracoidae expert at the Institution’s Systematic Entomology Laboratory. The PEER funding also facilitated the expansion of ties with Kasetsart University (Thailand), the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Science, National University of Singapore, the Vietnam National Museum of Nature. The PI is working to develop future collaborations with the Natural History Museum in Vienna, the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, and Ateneo de Manila University.

As for future plans and activities, based on the results of this PEER project, the president of RUPP has committed to establishing a National Museum of Science at the university’s main campus, and the museum will include some of the materials in the entomological collection created by the PI and his group. The PI recently received a small grant from MaryKnoll - Cambodia to provide ongoing support for curators at the Cambodian Entomology Initiatives (Entomological Collection) and to design an Insect Garden space at RUPP. Thanks to another recent grant provided by the ASEAN-European Union Scientific Consortium for Interdisciplinary Biodiversity Research (SEABIO), Dr. Phauk also has support for a new project aimed at establishing linkages and promoting exchanges of experts from Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand, and European institutions focusing on aquatic insect diversity. The PI and his colleagues are working on a manuscript on Hemipteran species that will be published for the first time for Cambodia in 2017, as well as a manual on Cambodian insects. The will also continue to maintain the CEI website ( and Facebook page ( 

 Cambodian Entomology Initiatives flyer

 Rice-Field Experiment flyer

 Genetics Experiment flyer (Khmer)


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