The Hawaiian Islands are home to remarkable diversity, including an array of birds, plants, and marine life. Unfortunately, many of these plants and animals are at risk of extinction due to invasive species, habitat loss, and climate change. Many species are recovering slowly thanks to the help of conservation and government organizations, but it is important to reduce our impact on wildlife whenever possible. If you’re planning a visit to public lands in Hawaiʻi, here are 6 species to learn more about.
Nēnē: Hawaiian Goose
The nēnē, the Hawaiian goose, is a symbol of the islands as the state bird. This black, brown, and beige bird is an herbivore, feeding on leaves, seeds, fruit, and flowers of grasses and shrubs. Like many species found on the islands, populations of nēnē were greatly reduced by changes to their environment, such as the introduction of predators like mongooses and cats, as well as introduced non-native plants that outcompete native food sources, and a general loss of their habitat. During the 1970s, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park began a breeding program aiming to boost the numbers of the nēnē, and while this has helped the population, there are still a multitude of issues facing their successful recovery.
‘I‘iwi: Scarlet Hawaiian Honeycreeper
Perhaps one of the best-recognized members of the Honeycreeper family, the ‘i’iwi, or Scarlet Hawaiian honeycreeper, is a bright red and black bird with a deeply decurved bill. With this specially designed bill, ‘i’iwi feed on the nectar of native lobelia, mint, and ʻōhiʻa flowers, and will occasionally eat spiders and other insects when nectar is not readily available. Due to diseases like avian malaria and avian pox, as well as critical habitat loss, this beautiful bird is facing extinction and is listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Honu: Green Sea Turtle
When visiting the beaches of Hawaiʻi, keep an eye out for the honu, or green sea turtle, which often enjoy basking to warm up or recover on the shore. Never approach a resting honu. It is the largest hard-shelled sea turtle in the world—adults can reach up to four feet in length and weigh over 200 pounds. Much of the population nests within the remote Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, and while that area is protected, there are many threats facing these sea turtles from the moment they are born, including predation from animals like crabs, birds, mongoose, and rats, as well as poaching and harvesting of eggs. Like all other sea turtles, the honu is listed on the Endangered Species Act as Threatened.
‘Īlioholoikauaua: Hawaiian Monk Seal
Found nowhere else in the world, the ‘īlioholoikauaua, or Hawaiian Monk Seal, is endemic to the waters of Hawaiʻi. While most seals live in colonies, these seals prefer a solitary life. The īlioholoikauaua are dark gray with a light-colored belly, average about 7 feet in length, and can weigh up to 600 pounds! These seals are listed as endangered in the United States Endangered Species Act, and there are maybe 1,500 individuals left. Their population has seen declines due to food limits, habitat loss, predation, disease, and entanglement: when pups and juvenile seals become ensnared in marine debris and discarded fishing line. While the species is recovering thanks to conservation efforts, they still have a long road ahead.
Growing in areas of recent lava flows and making up about half of the forests found on the larger islands of Hawaiʻi, this flowering tree is the most common native tree and a key tree of native Hawaiian forests. The ʻōhiʻa lehua has many uses within Hawaiian culture, including using young growth and flowers in lei and hula adornment, leaves to make medicinal tea, and the wood to create kapa beaters and poi boards. The lehua tree provides critical habitat for birds and collects large amounts of water from mist and rainfall, replenishing nearby aquifers. Unfortunately, a rise in a fungal disease known as Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death (ROD) and the increasing presence of invasive fountain grass is threatening the forests.
ʻĀhinahina: Hawaiian Silverswords
Another endangered species, the ʻāhinahina, or silversword, has three subspecies that grow on Mauna Loa Volcano, Maunkea Volcano, and Haleakalā Volcano. Adapted to the harsh climate, the ʻāhinahina only grows at high, dry, challenging elevations. These plants are a member of the sunflower family and start as a small ball of spikey, long, fleshy leaves with silvery ‘hairs’. ʻĀhinahina will only flower once in a lifetime, dying shortly after sending up a massive blooming spike and spreading thousands of seeds. The population began to decline due to invasive plants and introduced species such as cattle, goats, and mouflon sheep, as well as overharvesting by people and climate change. Today, the National Park Service works hard to keep these factors at bay, but population growth is slow.