Issue 21.6: December 2018/January 2019
Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

The Secret Life of Caly

Story by Julie Zack. Photos by Elyse Butler.

It took months of planning, numerous perilous treks into the Wai‘anae mountains, the creation of specialized technology and a precision helicopter drop on a knife’s edge ridge, all to watch a plant grow.

Caly, short for Cyanea calycina, or hāhā in Hawaiian, is a critically endangered lobelia endemic to O‘ahu, where fewer than two hundred individuals are left in the wild. It’s also the star of PlantCam, a webcam streaming live twenty-four hours. Visitors to the web site can see two views: one of Caly and one of the landscape from Caly’s perspective. Not much seems to happen in real time, but the time-lapse recap videos show Caly in motion, its leaves perking up in the sunlight or swaying with the elements. Cameras catch glimpses of rare native birds pollinating Caly’s flowers.

“I decided, well let’s try to come up with this super intensive monitoring system for us to really try to understand individual plants of small populations,” says Lucas Fortini, the ecologist for the Pacific Islands Ecosystems Research Center at USGS who spearheads the project. PlantCam serves a dual purpose. Sensors provide data on soil moisture, light levels, plant growth, temperature and humidity at fifteen-minute intervals, giving researchers unprecedented insight into Caly’s environment, making Caly and its neighbors “the most intensively and well-monitored plants in the world,” says Fortini. At the same time, the live webcam builds community interest in endangered species and the efforts to protect them.

Caly has had its misfortunes. In February, an invasive Brazilian pepper tree collapsed, falling on it. Fortini happened to be watching PlantCam at the time and saw that a camera was suddenly pointing downward, and one of Caly’s stems lay on the ground. “We thought, ‘Oh my god, I think a tree tumbled down the hill and killed Caly,’” he says. Fortini immediately headed out to the plant’s secret location, where he found one stem totally severed. He brought it to Lyon Arboretum, in Mānoa, where new plants might be propagated from it for outplanting in the wild. Thankfully, both the stem and Caly are doing well, largely thanks to the real-time monitoring and quick response from Fortini and his team.