Here’s what to know about Hawaii’s native wildlife


Hawaii is very different from most landmasses in the world. Unlike most landmasses, it has not broken away from a larger landmass (like Madagascar) or been separated by sea level rise (like the Indonesian islands). Hawaii is not part of any continental crust, it is the tops of massive volcanoes protruding from the surface of the ocean that was formed by the Hawaiian hotspot below them.

This is the most isolated group of islands on the planet, which has had a major impact on the types of plant and animal life that have settled there. Most of the native wildlife are birds, so bird watching is one of the least common things to do on the Big Island.

The most isolated archipelago in the world

The Hawaiian Islands are located approximately 3680 kilometers or 2300 miles from the nearest mainland coast. The isolation means that the native plants and animals found on the islands today are the result of early and very infrequent colonizations over a period of around 5 million years (the islands emerged for the first time above water about 10 million years ago – although now sunken islands in the chain have existed for much longer).

  • Insulated: The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated in the world
  • Distance: They are approximately 3,680 kilometers or 2,300 miles from the nearest mainland coast
  • Period: They have been colonized by animals for about 5 million years
  • Endemic: About 90% of species in Hawaii are endemic

Once the plants and animals arrived on the islands, they were in almost perfect isolation, therefore the islands have a large number of island endemic species. The radiation of species seen in the Galápagos Islands is even exceeded in the more isolated Hawaiian Islands.

The islands are also very diverse ecologically. On the high mountains there are trade wind fields and the islands can experience extreme rain shadow effects. One side of the island may be dry tropical while the other may be humid tropical and the slopes may be tropical rainforest.

The islands’ sheer distance from anywhere means that only birds, seeds, and spores that could travel that distance were able to create and colonize the islands.

Related: How to Plan a Tour Around Yellowstone’s Wildlife Mating, Migration Patterns, and More

Native fauna without predators or competitors

Like the equally isolated New Zealand in the far south, Hawaii’s native fauna also evolved in the absence of predators and competitors.

This means that the plants have not developed any defenses – like thorns or poisons. Native birds on the other hand have lost their sense of fear. It is believed that before humans arrived on the islands, there were around 67 species of birds.

The first Polynesian settlers began arriving on the islands around 500 AD. They upset the ecosystem by bringing in pigs, horses, sheep, goats and dogs. In the years that followed, around a third of the island’s native bird species disappeared.

Sadly, over the past 200 years, more bird species have gone extinct here than anywhere else in the world.

  • Birds: There were about 67 species of birds
  • Extinct: About a third of the birds have disappeared
  • Mammals: Only the Hawaiian monk seal and the hoary bat
  • Other animals: No amphibians, mosquitoes, reptiles or insects
  • Hawaiian monk seal: Driven to the brink of extinction in the 19th century – has made a comeback since then

  • Extinct: 23 species are extinct Endangered: 30 species are endangered

To protect against more unwanted species in the Hawaiian Islands, one can expect strict organic controls like in Australia and New Zealand – no apples!

Related: Discover Zealandia Sanctuary’s Most Endangered Wildlife

Hawaiian animals

Hawaii even more than New Zealand was the domain of birds. There were no amphibians, mosquitoes, reptiles or insects on the islands. There were only two endemic mammals – the Hawaiian monk seal and the hoary bat (mammals that flew or swam there). It is believed that the hoary bat was accidentally taken to the islands from North or South America. There are no endemic snakes in Hawaii and there are ongoing eradication programs to keep it that way.

Kauai is home to the most native and Hawaiian bird species and remains free of the obnoxious mongoose.

  • Hoary Bat: Lives at Koke State Park

The wild goats, pigs, black-tailed deer that can be seen on the islands are not native and are hunted. In the Kalihi Valley it is difficult to see rock wallabies – an interesting thing about these is that they may be a subspecies that is now extinct in Australia.

Hotspots to see native Hawaiian wildlife are at Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge in Kauai, Kealia Pond in Maui, and Kanaha Wildlife Sanctuary in Maui.

  • State bird: The Nene – a type of duck (was nearly extinct but now the number has risen to around 500)

Next: The world’s “living fossils” and where to find them


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