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November 4, 2004 :: No. 79

Cal State Fullerton Researcher Studies a Foreign Invader in Hawaii

A Cal State Fullerton faculty member and several of his students are focusing on the dry forest areas of Hawaii to investigate a persistent invader — a non-native grass from Africa.

Thanks to continued funding from the National Science Foundation, Darren Sandquist, associate professor of biological science, is in the third year of an investigation into the effects of African fountain grass taking root in Hawaii. Working with him are several students, including Kenia Melgar of Norwalk, a senior majoring in biological science, and graduate biology majors Nichole Cervin of Brea and Peter Koenig of Los Alamitos. Bahama Paritosh, a senior at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, also is collaborating on the study.

The grasses, brought to the island for landscaping, can grow up to four feet high and have taken over the habitat beneath such large trees as the Koa, or Hawaiian acacia. The tall grasses shut out light and limit the growth of native plant seedlings, and also are a fire hazard that can threaten the trees.

Sandquist hopes to find a way to manage the grasses’ growth. To do that, he is delving into various aspects of the plant, such as its water use and productivity, versus that of native plants. The researchers also are studying the grasses’ “carbon budget” — the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by plants and trees.

Melgar, Cervin and Koenig are performing experiments at Cal State Fullerton to determine the difference in water use and carbon gain in areas where the grass is competing with trees and when the grass has been removed. Changes in water source and light availability could change how well the fountain grass can enter and overtake an area.

In Hawaii, Paritosh is evaluating the productivity of an endangered species in the dry forest to identify how it may be influenced by the presence of the alien grass and to help in future management of the species.

“We’re also looking at how much carbon the grasses absorb versus native plants and trees,” Sandquist explained. “As fountain grass takes over an area where native plants grow, it could change the levels of carbon sequestration in that ecosystem.

“This project represents a great collaboration between basic scientific and applied research,” said Sandquist, “and it provides a excellent opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to participate in primary research.”

Since 2002, Sandquist has received $386,251 from the National Science Foundation to study the fountain grass in Hawaii. A portion of the funds is allocated for student research stipends.

Sandquist earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Occidental College and his doctorate in biology from the University of Utah. He resides in Buena Park.

Media Contacts: Darren Sandquist, associate professor of biological science, at 657-278-2606 or
Pamela McLaren of Public Affairs at 657-278-4852 or