Uluhe ferns (Dicranopteris linearis) in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, an important species as it colonizes bare sites such as lava flows and is the foundation of subsequent rainforest. They are the most common native fern in the mountains of Hawaii and are also vital in stopping erosion from heavy rainfall.
Hawaii – Fact Check

“Hawaii is this wonderful laboratory for new species”

Photo by Frans Lanting

Hawaii – Fact Check “Hawaii is this wonderful laboratory for new species”

Not so long ago, the native Hawaiian culture was a threatened species. No longer. Gradually over the last 40 years, Hawaiians and others have rescued the culture – language, dance, art, crafts, philosophy, identity – from extinction. However, other species on these isolated islands are still in peril.

Bill Harby
Bill Harby Writer

This has brought a powerful renewed sense of pride and political strength. The Hawaiians are regaining control of their homeland. One day, Hawaii will perhaps no longer be part of the United States.

Other species on these isolated islands are still in peril. Plants and animals migrated to Hawaii over the millennia as each island in the chain rose one by one in fiery rock from the ocean floor. And one by one, each species of plant or animal arrived by one of the “3 Ws”: wind, wave or the wings of birds. Each species adapted and evolved – or died. Unique native species are still dying here, largely the victims of invasive alien species – mosquitoes, rats, feral pigs, smothering vines, aggressive weeds. The Hawaiian Islands have the sad distinction of being the former home of at least 272 known endemic species now extinct, and today there are more than 300 officially endangered species of plants and animals here. But other native species continue to thrive and evolve – blind lava tube spiders, geese with non-webbed feet, lichens that show promise for a cancer cure.

Nevertheless, alien species, like those damn little invasive coquí frogs with their ear-splitting mating call, are always a threat. There’s a constant battle to preserve unique endemic plants from voracious aliens. We wince when we see tourists stopping in the village to take close-ups of the beautiful purple flower blossoming from the tangle of tibuchina vines. They don’t know that this vine threatens to smother the native forest. And most of the time, we don’t tell them. Why ruin their pretty moment? Meanwhile, the Hawaiian honeycreepers are hanging in there. More than 50 species and sub-species of endemic finches still survive in Hawaii. Amazingly, ornithologists tell us that all these species probably evolved from one Adam and Eve mating pair that happened to be blown here to their Eden a few million years ago.

The reason for such evolutionary promiscuity is no secret. “Hawaii is this wonderful laboratory for new species,” says Thane Pratt, a Volcano resident and retired biologist with the US Geological Survey. He says that this is because the Hawaiian Islands – the most isolated land on Earth – are a perfect Petri dish for natural selection and adaptive radiation (the ability of a species to adapt, thrive and spread in a new environment). Charles Darwin would have loved his Hawaiian vacation.

And still the beautiful diversity of fauna and flora up here are thriving – fern fronds unfurling like sci-fi sentient beings, native Hawaiians dancing by crater’s edge, giant hanging raindrops quivering on leaf tips, geologists in gas masks crouching with test tubes in a sulfur swirl, Pele’s tears among the cinders, ‘apapane dipping their curved beaks into bottlebrush lehua blossoms, night sky clouds reflecting the orange glow of the summit crater – and with artists and scientists documenting it all.

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