Efforts to protect Serianthes nelsonii earns award

GRANT AWARD: University of Guam Center for Island Sustainability Associate Director Else Demeulenaere received the Botanical Advocacy Leadership Grant for her research on the håyun lågu, or Serianthes nelsonii, during the 2019 Botany Conference held in July in Tucson, Ariz. In the photograph, from left, are: Andrea Wolfe, president, Botanical Society of America; Demeulenaere; and Wei Xiao, assistant professor of biology, University of Guam. Photo courtesy of Else Demeulenaere

Following a series of concerns of the flailing population of the local Serianthes nelsonii, University of Guam Center for Island Sustainability Associate Director Else Demeulenaere gained international recognition for her research and efforts to protect the tree. 

“I hope to advocate for the need to have more local laws to protect our natural and cultural resources on Guam,” Demeulenaere said.

Demeulenaere has been researching the critically endangered håyun lågu, or Serianthes nelsonii. Her efforts were rewarded during the 2019 Botany Conference in Tucson, Arizona, according to a UOG press release. 

The conference in late July gathered some 1,200 plant scientists from around the world to network, share their research and acknowledge some of the most impactful works in the field, the release stated. 

Demeulenaere received the competitive Botanical Advocacy Leadership Grant — an honor given to an individual who helps bridge public policymaking with issues relevant to plant science, the release stated. The grant awarded to Demeulenaere includes $1,000 to help fund the recipient’s proposed project.

Demeulenaere is pursuing her doctoral degree under an interdisciplinary arrangement with the University of Guam and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She is concurrently conducting phylogenetic research on the håyun lågu and an ethnobotanical study — a study of the tree's uses based on traditional cultural knowledge — at Litekyan, also known as Ritidian. She has also provided testimony before the 34th and 35th Guam Legislatures relative to her research in northern Guam.

“My involvement and research take root in the social movement to protect Litekyan. The plans to build a Live-Fire Training Range Complex at Tailalo’ threaten access to Litekyan, a sacred place, and will fragment a very valuable limestone forest, which is home to many endemic species intrinsically connected to the rich CHamoru culture,” Demeulenaere said.

Her proposal, “Bringing Biocultural Diversity to the Forefront of the Political Agenda in Guam,” will give her the opportunity to further advocate for endemic plants, cultural practices, and the protection of sacred places like Litekyan at a policy level.

“Else’s progress through her doctoral program has helped call attention to the rare Serianthes nelsonii and the challenges Guam faces with its repopulation,” said UOG Assistant Professor of Biology Wei Xiao, one of her advisers. “I’m very proud of Else for receiving a prestigious recognition for her research into this unique species.”

The Botanical Advocacy Leadership Grant is given annually by the Botanical Society of America and the American Society of Plant Taxonomists.

“This award highlights the outstanding value of Else’s dissertation research. It is an exciting intersection of resolving the genetic nature of one of Guam’s charismatic trees, an exploration of the ethnobotany of Serianthes, and an advocacy for natural resources in the face of threats from human disturbances,” said University of Alaska Fairbanks Professor of Botany Stefanie Ickert-Bond, Demeulenaere’s adviser and dissertation committee chair.