Flora & FaunaBig Island
Flora / Fauna
The Big Island’s Flora and Fauna
Water, wind and wings carried Hawaii’s pioneering plants and animals to their remote, tropical island homes. After traversing thousands of miles of open ocean, locating suitable habitats, and overcoming reproductive challenges, the sturdy survivors began populating the land and waters of Hawaii. These colonists also began adapting to their new environments, ultimately evolving into an eclectic collection of native plants and animals found nowhere else in the world.
Hawaii’s isolation nurtured gentle natives. Relatively few predators and competitors permitted the tender plants and animals to evolve in safety, with little need for natural defenses. Protective thorns or poisons are rare among native plants, and Hawaii’s native animals often do not conceal or preserve their progeny very well. As a result, many facets of Hawaii’s exquisitely unique biodiversity are threatened with extinction from aggressively invasive alien plants and animals which were later introduced to the islands.
Hundreds of Hawaiian plants and animals are endangered. According to the Nature Conservancy, Hawaii houses about 12 percent of all the endangered plants and animals in the United States. Three-fourths of the country’s extinct plants and birds were Hawaiian.
The Big Island of Hawaii, the youngest and most massive in the island chain, harbors an extraordinary medley of native plants and animals. Composed of five enormous volcanoes, the Big Island has 13 climate zones and is more than double the size of all the other Hawaiian islands combined.
Native ohia lehua trees shimmer with silvery-green leaves and burst into bold red pompon flowers (pink, yellow and white flowers occur more rarely). The flower, lehua, is sacred to Pele, the Hawaiian Volcano Goddess. Ohia usually refers to the woody part of the tree. The strong, hard ohia wood was used by ancient Hawaiians to carve temple idols, canoes, poi (mashed taro root) bowls and spears. Contemporary uses of ohia wood include house posts, furniture, floors and fuel. These adaptable survivors range from miniature trees in wet bogs to giants exceeding 100 feet. Often the first life in fresh lava flows, ohia lehua is Hawaii’s most abundant native tree. Tropical breezes easily spread their tiny seeds, smaller than this letter e. They range between 1,000 and 9,000 feet in elevation. You’ll see an abundance of the distinctive, crooked trees throughout Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
One of Hawaii’s largest native trees is Koa, which grows to 100 feet tall with a trunk more than 10 feet in diameter. The flowers are pale yellow puff-balls which turn into flat brown seed pods, about 6 inches by 1 inch. The red-grained, wavy koa wood was used by ancient Hawaiians for dugout canoes, paddles, spears and surfboards. However, few koa trees survived the more recent and ongoing demand for its distinctive furniture wood. Koa trees thrive in moderately moist forests between elevations of 1,000 and 6,000 feet. You’ll find some sturdy survivors on Hualalai on the westside, and in the preserve of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Ancient winds effectively dispersed tiny fern spores across Hawaii. Of the 168 native fern species, two are most common: tree ferns (‘ama’u and hapu’u), and false staghorn ferns (uluhe). Fern forests are frequently seen blanketing lava flows beside ohia lehua and koa trees. Ferns thrive in high-altitude rainforests within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. More than 120 inches of rainfall annually has transformed many stark lava landscapes into lush fertile forests. Historically, Hawaiians ate certain young fern fronds, and harvested pulu (the silky hairs which cover young frond stems and buds) for bedding materials and medical supplies. Sometimes uluhe tea was taken as a laxative. Today, root masses within the ferns are collected as preferred potting materials for orchids.
Hawaii’s state bird is the endangered nene, Hawaiian goose. Slowly making a recovery from the brink of extinction, about 500 are found on the Big Island slopes of Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea and Hualalai. Fewer live on Maui’s Haleakala crater and in Kauai’s Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. You can see these gentle creatures scattered throughout Volcanoes National Park, particularly at dawn and dusk along Devastation Trail and around Kilauea’s summit caldera. Please remember not to frighten or harass the nene – they are protected by state and federal laws.
Endangered Hawaiian hawks (‘io) are found only on the Big Island. They construct nests of sticks and leaves primarily in the trees on the slopes of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, below 9,000 feet in elevation. Look for these open country birds gliding overhead throughout Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Early Hawaiians believed the ‘io was a symbol of royalty. The ‘io’s dwindling population is slowly recovering.
Fewer than a dozen Hawaiian crows (alala) remain, and they are scattered on the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa, above 3,000 feet. Resembling a raven, this melodious, dark brown or black bird is social and used to travel in large family groups. Alala are very nervous while nesting, and any disturbance will cause it to abandon its young – please use caution.
On the slopes of Mauna Kea, a few remaining clusters of mamane trees sustain the endangered palila, a six-inch, bright yellow Hawaiian honeycreeper. All Hawaiian honeycreepers are descended from one species of finch which became established in the islands long ago. The honeycreepers’ most striking adaptations are their bills, which vary from short, sturdy seed crushers to long, slender nectar sippers. They are at home above 6,000 feet.
A common native bird is the apapane, a chubby, bright red honeycreeper frequently seen throughout Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The bright red feathers from these chirpy songbirds were sought by early Hawaiians to adorn royal garments.
You’ll also find Hawaii’s only land mammal on the Big Island (and Kauai). The hoary bat’s habitat stretches from sea level to over 13,000 feet, although they prefer dry forests at an elevation of about 4,000 feet. Occasionally, the creatures are spotted in lava tubes.