Waisali Forest Reserve

After a month on Viti Levu, I was ready to make the journey over to the next largest island in Fiji, Vanua Levu, to search for more Cyrtandra species. Flights between islands are pretty expensive, so Gregory and I opted to take the overnight ferry. Unfortunately, the nicest passenger ferry currently operating, the Lomaviti Princess, was full and so we ended up on a shipping ferry run by Bligh. This entailed a 3-hr bus ride to the wharf, followed by a 10 hr ferry ride. Long story short, it was one of the worst night’s sleep I can remember, curled up in fetal position on a table bench in the passenger lounge, with hundreds of cockroaches crawling all around me (and surely on me if I dared to nod off for a second). We finally arrived in Savusavu, a pleasant town situated on a large bay full of expats and retired yachties, at 5 in the morning and hitched a ride to our hotel in a courier truck.

Savusavu Bay

Savusavu Bay

Gregory and I enjoying some much-deserved down time at a nearby beach.

Gregory and I enjoying some much-deserved down time at a nearby beach.

Cyrtandra dolichocarpa

Cyrtandra dolichocarpa

The following day I hired a 4WD taxi to take us up the mountain to Waisali Forest Reserve to meet up with Ranuka, a park ranger whom was to be my field guide for the next few days. The plan was to follow a large stream system that traversed across the mountain range, as stream banks are an excellent place to look for Cyrtandra. Our first day was really successful, finding three different species occurring pretty commonly along the stream (C. dolichocarpa, C. attenuata, and C. cephalophora). Ranuka was an excellent field guide, and a super nice guy on top of it, making for a fun day of work.

C. attenuata inflorescence.

C. attenuata inflorescence.

Indeterminate inflorescence of C. cephalophora.

Indeterminate inflorescence of C. cephalophora.

Ranuka and I after a long day of fieldwork.

Ranuka and I after a long day of fieldwork.

The next day he offered to take us to his village down in one of the valleys nearby so I could look for more species along a creek that runs behind their plantations. To be granted permission to enter a Fijian village it is customary to purchase a sevusevu, a gift of kava roots (Piper methisticum), and present it to the village chief. Most large farmers markets in Fiji have stalls dedicated to kava, and it can be purchased as a powder or root, although the root is preferred for the sevusevu. The roots are then pounded into a fine powder and mixed with water to form Fiji’s official drink, kava (also referred to as grog by the locals, as after a long night of partaking in kava drinking leaves you really groggy the next day). With our sevusevu in hand, we drove to Waisali village the following day, where we were warmly welcomed by Ranuka and his family. With the sevusevu presented to the chief we were ready for fieldwork. Passing through the villages haphazard plantations of kava, dalo, and cassava, we reached a small creek and began searching for Cyrtandra. After maybe five minutes of walking I spotted a glabrous Cyrtandra species with large yellowish-white flowers and fruits that looked like green beans occurring commonly along the creek. Although the flowers and fruits are somewhat similar to C. dolichocarpa, I have not been able to key it out as of yet, and it is possible this could be an undescribed species. The other highlight of the day was when Ranuka caught a freshwater eel (called duna in Fijian) in the creek with a few whacks of his machete. At the end of the day, we were invited into Ranuka’s home for some wonderful lemongrass tea and pancakes (kind of like a round donut) made by his sweet wife Pauline. Four species in two days made our collecting trip to Waisali a success, and we were also rewarded with the experience of spending some time in Waisali village.

Flower and cylindrical fruits of an unidentified Cyrtandra species.

Flower and cylindrical fruits of an unidentified Cyrtandra species.

Ranuka and his freshly caught duna (freshwater eel).

Ranuka and his freshly caught duna (freshwater eel).

Mount Korobaba

My second collecting trip in Fiji was on Mount Korobaba (pronounced Korombamba), just 15 minutes drive outside of the main city of Suva. I am extremely lucky to have found a field assistant to help me with my collecting. Manoa is native to the second largest island in Fiji, Vanua Levu, and is studying environmental science at USP. He is polite, eager to learn, and experienced in navigating through the dense bush. To reach the trail at the foot of the mountain, Manoa instructs our taxi driver to turn down a dirt road leading to a Chinese-owned cement company. We don’t get more than two minutes down the road before the driver stops the car with a perplexed look on his face. I peer out the window to see that the road is a muddy mess. Manoa jumps out to see just how deep the mud is. He is immediately knee-deep in the stuff and has lost his slippers. The cab driver chuckles “ Is something wrong?” Grimacing, Manoa bends down to attempt to fish his slippers out of the brown slop. I get out of the car, accepting that we will have to walk the rest of the way. Pulling on my spiked rubber boots, I am immediately happy with my decision to spend the extra money to get good footwear. It would be impossible to hike to most of these spots without them.

Pacific Cement Company looming above Lami Bay.

Pacific Cement Company looming above Lami Bay.

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Manoa standing in a patch of C. milnei.

We start out down the road and are soon trudging past the Chinese cement company with its yellow smoke stacks and turquoise-painted walls. It is a large compound that is heavily protected by high fences topped with barbed wire. The workers stop churning cement for a moment to stare at us curiously. We are indeed an odd sight — a young Fijian man walking around with a white woman in the middle of nowhere, both covered in mud. They ask where we are going, and Manoa tells them we are headed to Mt. Korobaba. Losing interest, they go back to toiling with their endless amounts of rock and mortar.  Continuing down the road we notice a number of disturbing signs indicative of the companies’ presence. A large pool of ground water is glowing an eery, almost neon blue. The entire mountainside around the company has been cleared of all its trees, the massive trunks rotting in heaps like unburied corpses. The earth has been ripped and clawed and torn, leaving a strange mars-like landscape of barren red dirt in its wake. The beginning of the trail up to Korobaba is completely gone, and we must now find another way to get up the mountain.

Bracteate inflorescence of C. milnei.

Bracteate inflorescence of C. milnei.

Flower of C. milnei.

Flower of C. milnei in female phase.

We scramble across the gutted forest to a ravine and climb our way up a now-dry waterfall to the forest edge. Weaving through the trees, Manoa soon finds the old trail and we begin our steep ascent up the mountain. Once past the abandoned Mahogany plantation, we reach native forest and find Cyrtandra almost immediately. One species, C. milnei, is particularly common along the trail. Its long orange-brown trichomes, congested many-flowered inflorescences, large foliaceous bracts and bracteoles, greenish-white corollas, and white ovoid fruits distinguish this species. Other less common species in the area include C. esothrix and C. pritchardii, although the latter was unfortunately sterile at the time of our visit.  Overall, it was a good trip with a few more collections added to the list.


Just a 30-minute drive outside of Suva’s urban sprawl is Colo-i-Suva, a 2.5 sq-km park boasting some of the most intact (and accessible) lowland rainforest in Fiji. My first collecting trip in Fiji, Colo-i-Suva was the perfect place to begin my three-month journey with over 6.5 km of walking trails. After three days of hiking I was able to collect at least 4 different species of Cyrtandra, as well as a number of individuals that may represent hybrids between species. The most common species in the area is C. esothrix with its distinctly serrate leaves, thick coriaceous calyces, and large elliptic fruits. Cyrtandra cephalophora was an interesting find with its strange indeterminate inflorescences and bright orange fruits borne on woody stems. Less common in the area are C. vitiensis with its prominent white calyces and C. trichophylla, a distinctly woody species of Cyrtandra with clustered inflorescences and large pubescent leaves.

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Fijian Kaori tree: Dakua


C. esothrix


C. vitiensis


C. cephalophora


C. cephalophora fruit and indeterminate inflorescence; one of only 3 known species of Fijian Cyrtandra with orange fruits.



Fiji Time

There is something about island life that makes time seem irrelevant. Perhaps it’s the humidity…when you’re sweating profusely, it becomes almost impossible to carry a sense of urgency. The general attitude here is that there is always tomorrow, although this seems to be less embodied by the urban youth. Keen to embrace western ideals and a faster pace of life, this new generation opts for a pair of skinny jeans, a Mohawk of sorts, and long nights on the dance floor in one of Suva’s many nightclubs.

In a number of ways, Fiji seems to be caught between opposing worlds. Many Fijians and Indo-Fijians alike still wear the traditional garb of their nations, yet there is a line out the door for Vodafone cellular phones. At most food stands you can get a Fijian favorite of fish cooked in coconut milk, an assortment of Indian curries, as well as fish and chips (a remnant of the British rule, no doubt). And then there are the modes of transportation: if you want to go fast, look no further than one of the dozens of taxicabs lining the streets (in fact, you won’t have to look at all, as they’ll honk at you incessantly as they drive by, their pleasant way of asking if you want a ride). If you’ve got time to spare, wait on the corner for the local bus: there’s no bus schedule, you just hang out and hope it shows up.

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One thing is clear: times have changed in a big way, and although the islands still run on “Fiji time” there is no escaping the fact that western influence has a stranglehold on Fiji’s destiny. If you want to see just how much the tiny nation has changed from what it once was, spend a few hours at the Fiji Museum. For $7FJ you can see authentic spearheads made from the barbs of manta rays, double-hulled canoes designed to sail thousands of miles across the open ocean, necklaces of whale teeth used in religious ceremonies, and – my favorite – a cannibal fork. These delicate forks carved from wood allowed the village chiefs to eat the brains of their victims without getting any of the mess on their lips. Of botanical interest, Cyrtandra anthopophagorum was the preferred accompaniment to a dinner of brains, the fleshy fruits giving a refreshing ‘pop’ in the mouth.


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Not surprisingly, the Christian missionaries frowned upon this practice, and Fijians today do not like to speak of this cannibalistic “wrinkle” in their countries history. But if long-standing traditions such as fishing for your dinner, or eating the brains of your enemies are so easily wiped from a nation’s culture, what chance does the native flora stand? With the increasing pressure to log what little forest is left to make room for more agriculture and urban development, the future seems grim for the native flora and fauna of Fiji. Much like the cultural traditions that have been lost forever, the once-diverse and flourishing forests of Fiji may soon be gone, replaced by a never-ending sea of sugar cane, taxicabs, and Vodafone stores.

The long road to Suva

I survived my first day in Fiji, and so far everything had gone as planned. The 12 hour flight from LAX was comfortable, and all my luggage arrived safely. Even getting my Visa and going through customs was relatively painless, although I would have to get used to the never-ending string of personal questions: “Are you traveling alone? Where’s your husband? Do you have any kids?”. The hotel I had booked for the first night turned out to be lovely, run by a friendly husband and wife from New Zealand that were eager to hear about my research. After a comfortable nights sleep, I set out the next morning to catch the Coral Sun Express bus from Nadi to Suva, where I was to meet up with the herbarium team at the University of the South Pacific. Alas, this is when things began to go wrong…

I hired a taxi to drop me at a hotel down the street where the local express bus stops twice a day. I called ahead to make sure the bus was planning to stop there at 1 PM as scheduled and was assured it would do so.  Three hours went by, and still no sign of the bus. The friendly Fijian man working the front desk called a cab for me, and I was shuttled to the local bus station to wait for another express bus.  By now, I had learned the hard way that taxi drivers in Nadi do not use their meters, and will charge what ever amount they feel they can get away with. I was clearly an easy target, and had already paid way too much for my first few cab rides. I was determined to not let this happen again, and so after some haggling I managed to get the price down to a few dollars, and felt pretty proud of myself that I had learned to play their little game, albeit after getting ripped off a few times.

The Nadi bus station was a hot and dusty affair, crammed with working class Indo-Fijians wearing the traditional Indian saris, as well as native Fijians sporting both traditional and western clothing.  I purchased a ticket to Suva for $17FJ which was considerably cheaper than a taxi would have cost ($100FJ). Clumsily gathering my three large pieces of luggage, I shuffled out of the way of the crowd. The only fair-skinned person in the whole bus station, I stood out like a sore thumb, and tried to ignore the curious stares from the people around me. As the Sunbeam Express pulled up to the curb, the crowd scrambled to board and get the best seats. Waiting for the crowd to subside, I was the last to load my luggage beneath the bus. As I made my way up the steps, I was overcome by a sinking feeling as I realized there were no more seats available. Dismayed, I began to accept the fact that I would stand for the entire 3.5 hr ride. However, the driver wasn’t having it, and insisted that people make room. To my relief, two plump and smiling Fijian women made a space for me, and I sat down gratefully as the song over the loudspeaker played “Highway to Hell”….I knew it was going to be a long day.

The drive from Nadi to Suva along the Queens Road is slow going, as the two-lane highway is the only road around the island. Traffic from numerous buses and logging trucks, as well as livestock wandering across the road results in vehicles coming to a screeching halt about every 10 minutes. While the drive is very scenic, the destruction to the native flora is quite evident. Logging of the forest has resulted in vast swathes of bare land dotted with an occasional non-native pine, albizia, or African tulip tree. Sugar cane is the predominant crop grown along the coast, and curls of smoke can be seen billowing up from the fields as they are burned and harvested.

After an excruciatingly long 5.5 hrs, we pulled up to the Suva bus station at 7 PM. It’s dark out, and the city is bustling. As I get off the bus, two young Fijian boys eagerly point to my luggage. They ask if I need a taxi, and I reply yes. Quickly hurling my heavy bags onto a wheelbarrow, one boy instructs me to follow him. I do so, careful not to lose him in the thick crowd as he scurries down the road. He loads my bags into a waiting taxi, I thank him, and tip $2FJ for his service. Climbing into the cab, I instruct the driver to take me to Peninsula Hotel. We hurdle down the road at neck-breaking speed, flying past neon signs advertising the local beer “Fiji Gold”, and fast-food joints including the omnipresent McDonalds. Pulling up to the hotel, my bags are unloaded onto the aging and dirty sidewalk, and the cab drives away. I inquire about a room for the night, only to be told that there are no vacancies. I instantly regret my decision to be on the “non-plan” plan.

The friendly bell hop offers to flag me down another taxi, as I fumble through my Fiji guidebook to find another hotel option for the night. I try the Suva Motor Inn, but they’re booked solid, too. Ugh. Last, I try South Seas Private Hotel and am incredibly relieved to hear that they have vacancies. The cab driver takes me the short few blocks to the hotel, and I check in for the night. It’s more of a hostel than a hotel, with an old colonial style building complete with long meandering hallways and high ceilings. My room looks a bit like a jail cell with its barred windows, scratched tile floor, and tiny sagging bed, but its clean and safe, and right now that’s all I need. Plopping my bags onto the floor, I am a sweaty dirty mess, and realize that I haven’t eaten since breakfast, which seems like it was days ago. But there’s no way in hell I’m leaving the comfort of this room again tonight, so I gulp down some cold Fiji bottled water and pass out on my tiny sagging bed, excited to see what adventures tomorrow will bring.




Current research proposal

Great news!  My dissertation research was recently funded by The Gesneriad Society Nelly D. Sleeth Scholarship Endowment Fund and Sigma Xi Grants-in-aid of research.  With the funds received from these societies I will begin my field work on the islands of Viti Levu, Vanua Levu, and Taveuni in the Fijian archipelago during the summer of 2014.  Below is my current research proposal, titled “Testing the non-adaptive speciation hypothesis on islands: Pacific Cyrtandra (Gesneriaceae) as a model of species radiation decoupled from ecological diversification”.

Ecological speciation has received increasing support recently, yet there exist a number of species-rich radiations that appear better suited to a non-adaptive speciation model (i.e. radiations where sibling species maintain similar ecological niches).  In contrast to the better-known plant radiations of the Pacific (e.g. silverswords, lobeliads), island Cyrtandra species (ca. 250-300 spp; Gesneriaceae) are confined to a single habitat (wet upland forest understories), and are predominantly small trees/shrubs with white flowers and white fleshy fruits.  Given these ecological and morphological similarities, a likely model for speciation within Pacific Cyrtandra is geographic isolation of small populations following founder events, with associated genetic and phenotypic divergence driven by drift and mutations.  I propose to use this non-adaptive radiation model as a null hypothesis to test the idea that speciation can be driven by factors other than ecologically based divergent selection.

To test this hypothesis I propose to conduct fieldwork in Fiji, as it is a likely first-step for Cyrtandra into the Pacific from Southeast Asia.  Fiji has also played a key role in the group’s expansion to multiple isolated archipelagos, and is sufficiently old geologically (~40 MYBP) such that Cyrtandra species have likely had time to build reproductive barriers, which will improve phylogenetic resolution.  With adequate funding now in hand, I hope to accomplish the following:

1). Conduct pollinator observations using video cameras during day/night hours to assess divergence via pollinator selection.  Floral functional trait measurements including morphology, nectar sugar concentration/ratios, and nectar volume will further assess pollinator selection.

2). Measure leaf/whole plant functional traits to assess differences related to resource use and life history tradeoffs at the adult/reproductive phase.  Functional traits measured will include plant height, leaf mass per area, leaf venation and pubescence, and seed number per fruit.

3). Conduct environmental chamber experiments to estimate differences in response to abiotic factors at the germination/seedling recruitment phase.  Open-pollinated fruits will be collected from a selected subset of species in the field.  Differential treatments on seeds/seedlings will include light, water and nutrient availability, and soil type.

4.) Collect fresh leaf material from all 35 Fijian Cyrtandra species to create a well-resolved phylogeny to infer evolutionary relationships among species.  DNA extraction and amplification will be carried out for several low-copy nuclear genes, and the nrITS, nrETS, and psbA-trnH chloroplast gene regions.

5.) Interpret this phylogeny as a null framework of neutral genetic distance between species (FST).  Quantitative trait differentiation (QST) will be calculated from morphological/functional data and overlaid on the phylogeny for comparison.

No difference between QST and FST will suggest that genetic drift/mutations are sufficient to explain the observed pattern of differentiation among species, a result that will significantly challenge the pervading view of speciation.  In contrast, a finding of QST>FST will provide new support for the widely accepted (yet rarely tested) theory that speciation is primarily driven by ecologically based divergent natural selection.  Lastly, a result of QST<FST will suggest that convergent selection is favoring the same phenotype in different environments, although this outcome is not expected given the habitat homogeneity exhibited by Pacific Cyrtandra.