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A Natural Image

Hawaii is one of the best known places on earth. People everywhere dream of a once-in-a-lifetime vacation to our Islands. I suspect most perceptions of Hawaii are similar to what mine was before moving here-white sand beaches, coconut trees swaying in the breeze, and aqua-blue, bath-tub warm ocean. The Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau is now spending millions of dollars of marketing money to broaden and refocus Hawaii’s image to the world’s citizens. But there’s also a whole other segment of our economy spending millions of dollars that will change people’s perceptions of Hawaii. Biologists, climatologists, biogeographers, ecologists, geneticists, geologists, astronomers, agronomists and conservationists are just some of the researchers whose evolving story showcases the natural phenomena of the islands. One day Hawaii will be known fundamentally different than it is today. Its dominant image of the romantic sand and surf vacation destination will be eclipsed by the image of the Hawaiian archipelago as one of the planet’s greatest natural wonders.

New lava Kilauea

New lava breaks to the surface kilauea photo by Andrew Nisbet

Hawaii’s story begins, of course, with magma. As the Pacific plate drifts to the northwest, a hot spot of magma has built up some of the largest mountains on earth one lava flow at a time. While the ongoing eruption of Kilauea continues to captivate the general public, other aspects of research in the physical sciences are equally as exciting and instructive. The chronology of the archipelago’s development from the submerged Emperor Seamounts to the emergent Loihi, the diverse collection of soils, the erosion of landforms including landslides of epic scale, the chemical nature of molten rock, how it cools, the flexing of the lithosphere under the weight of the volcanoes, and new technology and techniques developed for earth science research are just a few of the products flowing out of Hawaii.

bird painting

This painting by Douglas Pratt shows representative breaks of the endemic Hawaiian Honeycreepers. Unfortunately these endemic Drepandis are also one of the most endangered families of birds on earth. Over a third of the original species are now extinct while over a third are endangered.

Building upon the magmatic storyline is the biological. The colonization and development of the native Hawaiian biota is one the world’s greatest evolutionary tales. The very first Hawaiian island that popped through the surface of the ocean was bare lava rock. By the time the first Polynesians arrived perhaps 1600 years ago, they found an island chain with a remarkable array of climate, topography, and ecosystems. And much of the main islands were inhabited with unique plants and animals. Many biologists believe most of the islands were forested nearly to the coast. All the flora and fauna here were descendants of colonizers that somehow made their way across the ocean or through the air.

There are four very good reasons why it was extremely difficult to successfully colonize the islands. First, the organism had to survive the journey here. The Hawaiian archipelago is the most isolated large island group in the world. The nearest continental landmass, North America, is 2500 miles away. Secondly, once here the organism needed to land in or find a place where it had the right adaptations to make a living. A seed weevil from the wet forests of Asia would hardly survive a landing amid a coastal desert lava field. Thirdly, to leave your genetic imprint behind, the organism had to find some way to reproduce. Mr. and Mrs. Weevil would have had to make the same journey or Mrs. Weevil could have arrived with fertilized eggs. And finally, the offspring would have only siblings to breed with-tiny gene pools and inbreeding are usually not successful in the long term. Despite these formidable obstacles a few colonizers made it here and succeeded. Evolutionists believe that on average a plant successfully colonized Hawaii about once every 100,000 years, a bird once every 75,000 years, an insect about every 35-45,000 years. From these relatively few founder events somewhere around 10,000 species evolved. In some instances, hundreds of species derived from a single colonizer. We have some of the best examples of evolutionary process on earth among the bird, plant, and insect groups.

Black Rat photo by Jack Jeffrey

Black Rat- introduced species threaten native population Photo by Jack Jeffrey

The next chapter of Hawaii’s natural history involves human culture. Once people first settled in the islands, dramatic change took place within the environment. Clearing of forests for habitation and agriculture along with the introduction of alien species began a process that continues today. The loss of habitat for the native species and the introduction of competitors, predators, and disease have all attributed to a high rate of extinction within the Hawaiian biota. With several dozen species literally on the brink of extinction, Hawaii has become one of the hotspots for the study of conservation biology and extinction process.

Hawaii is a living laboratory. The economic contribution of the research community in the islands is rarely discussed or quantified by politicians or policymakers. But it is significant. Even more important is the image that is evolving from the cumulative body of research Hawaii encompasses. Many of the fundamental ecological issues and questions facing us on a global level are crystallized and obvious in Hawaii. Fundamental lessons have been discovered here. From the origins of the universe to the development of ecosystems to the process of species creation, Hawaii continues to reveal itself. One day an image of Hawaii will emerge that at once captures the romantic and stunning beauty of the islands with the awe-inspiring tale of its remarkable natural history and the value of its precious ability to teach us about life. Once we have a clear image of the nature of Hawaii we will be forced to recognize that Hawaii’s nature is the most valuable thing we have.

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