Not all buds become flowers, but the liko, or new leaf buds of the kolea lau nui will delight you as much as any blossom. Blushing in pinks to deep magentas, the liko contrast nicely with the shiny light to dark green mature foliage of the rest of plant. Its actual flowers are quite nice as well, clustered about the branches in green and purple, and blossoming usually in the fall through spring. The 'i'iwi finds their nectar quite tasty. Flowering is followed up by the presence of the fruit, bunches of green drupes that turn dark purple to black upon ripening. This endemic tree or shrub is most often found in mesic to wet forests, though it can occupy a diversity of habitats, and many recommend that it be used more in landscape design. Its wood proved useful to early Hawaiians, who used it for the construction of hale, for posts, and as a tool for beating kapa. Dyes were extracted from the sap as well as from the charcoal. The stature of the plant is quite variable, depending on habitat and conditions. A kolea lau nui in Puuwaawaa Forest Reserve in North Kona, was nominated for the American registry of big trees, and was added to the National Register in 2013. It was measured 32 feet in height with a crown spread of just over 25 feet.
Dotting the coastlines of several of the MHI are anchialine pools, formed when freshwater percolates through the ground and meets up with salty water that enters through subterranean cracks and fissures in lava or limestone. The result is a landlocked body of water with secret passages to the sea. The water is stratified, layered with salty, denser water at deeper levels, and brackish to fresh water near the surface. Salinity levels in these pools are also influenced by tidal changes and solar intensity. While this habitat would seem a rather challenging place to live, a surprising diversity of creatures call it home, including the poster child for Hawaii's anchilaine pools: Halocaridina rubra. The 'opae 'ula, a.k.a Hawaiian red shrimp, or volcano shrimp, is a little thing, just up to a half inch in length. These are the shrimp that you may see for sale in air-tight "ecospheres", and while their trade has brought attention to this otherwise little-known decapod, their fates are literally sealed.
In their natural environment they feed on algal and bacterial mats within the pool, scraping and filtering these with hair-like structures on their chelipeds. Detritus and plankton may also be consumed. 'Opae 'ula were used by early Hawaiians in their fish ponds as food for larger fish, such as 'opelu, and they are also a favorite food of seahorses. They are unusually long-lived, with estimates from 10-15 years in he wild, and reproduce underground. Hawaii is thought to have approximately 650 anchialine pools, with the vast majority of them found on the island of Hawai’i. Much remains to be learned about these pools and the creatures that live there. In the meantime, it is important to respect these unusual habitats, leaving them undisturbed and free from alien species, such as guppies, tilapia and mosquito fish.
Right here in the waters off of Hawaii, is a most fantastic creature: the hahalua, known to scientists as Manta alfredi. Though their size may be intimidating, reaching up to an impressive 15 foot or so wingspan and 3000 pounds, they are gentle and graceful, soaring through the coastal waters on "wings" as elegantly as the 'iwa bird soars through the air above them. As recently as 2009, manta rays were split into two species: Manta birostris, the giant manta ray, the larger of the two and migrating across open waters (rarely seen here), and Manta alfredi, the reef manta ray, which is also pelagic, but is resident and prefers coastal waters. Groups are known to frequent the waters around the Kona coast of the Big Island and the channels of Maui Nui. Their cartilaginous skeletons put them in the same class as sharks and skates. The "wings" are actually elongated pectoral fins, and their flattened saucer-shaped bodies end in a whip-like tail, though it lacks a spine or stinger, unlike the tails of eagle rays and stingrays, which also inhabit Hawaiian waters.
Off the front of the head of the reef manta are the cephalic lobes, which are unfurled when feeding and curled up when swimming, resembling horns, thus the nickname "devil ray." While the smaller stingrays and eagle rays feed off mollusks and other bottom dwelling invertebrates, the hahalua is a filter feeder of zooplankton. It may swoop and loop as it feeds, somersaulting through the water as the cephalic lobes funnel the drifting plankton to the gill plates, which in turn, remove them from the water. Hahalua are countershaded: generally dark above and light below, and may have splotchy makings on the belly, which help to identify individuals. It is not uncommon to find a "Y-shaped" light-colored marking from the head that fades as it stretches to the back of the manta ray. The ends of the wings may also be whitish. They are slow growing, long-lived, and have a low fecundity (reproductive capacity). According to the NOAA fisheries website, their gestation period is thought to last 10-14 months, with the female birthing usually one pup every two or so years.
With its gracefully curved salmon beak and its bright vermillion plumage, the 'I'iwi (Vestiaria coccinea) is one of the most recognizable of the Hawaiian Honeycreepers. The brilliant red is offset with black wings and tail, and it is known to make some pretty odd calls, described in some articles as sounding of "rusty hinges" and even more mysteriously, "the sound of balloons rubbing together." Its brilliant plumage did not go unnoticed by the early Hawaiians, who used the feathers to adorn the capes and helmets of the a'li'i. They are primarily nectar feeders, their curved bill adapted for extracting the sweet nectar of plants such as the native lobelioids, as well as ohia, koa, naio, māmane, and kōlea flowers, among others. But delve into their story a bit, and you'll find some interesting lessons about interactions of the biotic and abiotic factors in an ecosystem. Though once common at low elevations on all islands, the habitat of this forest bird is being pushed to higher and higher elevations. Only remnant population exists on Moloka'i, and three isolated populations on O'ahu. There are no longer 'i'iwi on Lana'i. On Hawai'i island, Maui, and Kaua'i, most 'i'iwi are found above 4100 feet. What has caused this shift?
Certainly, the usual suspects are a part of it. Development and habitat degradation are big factors, as are introduced animals such as rats and feral cats. Competition with non-native birds, such as the white-eye is yet another. But the 'i'iwi is also highly susceptible to avian malaria and avian pox. Avian malaria is transmitted by the Culex mosquito, and in one study, nine out of ten juvenile 'i'iwi died from a single bite from an infected mosquito. However, this mosquito is cold-intolerant, and at higher elevations they are rare or absent. Therefore, the higher elevations serve as safer havens for the 'i'iwi. The highest points on O'ahu and Moloka'i are below 4100 feet, helping to explain the smaller populations there.
Now we add another dimension to the story. Enter the wild boar. You see, these guys like to snuffle around the forest floor, and in so doing, clear patches that then create muddy and wet wallows: perfect breeding sites for the Culex mosquito. Connecting the dots, you can see why organizations such as the Nature Conservancy are working to curb the impact of these and other feral animals, particularly in the higher elevations. Awareness of the interplay of the living and nonliving aspects of the Hawaiian forests help us to reduce "Scarlet's" malarian fever, and to provide much needed habitat for these spectacular birds for generations to come.
These past few weeks, I have had the pleasure of witnessing the amazing metamorphosis of the vine hawk moth. It all began one night when a biggish blob fell from a shelf in my house, on which I had a Pentas (Pentas lanceolata) plant growing in a pot inside a large basket. Thinking it was a gecko, I moseyed on over to inspect it closer, when I realized it was a hefty and interesting-looking caterpillar. After a brief photo shoot of the critter, I went about trying to figure out what it was, so that I could rear it and watch into transform into a beautiful... something. I knew that caterpillars have specific plants on which they can feed, called "host plants," and that I couldn't just throw any old leafy green at it and hope that it would eat. Sure enough, I was able to whittle the search down, and it appeared that I had a vine hawk moth, Hippotion rosetta (hip-POE-tee-on roe-ZET-tuh), which has colonized Hawaii just recently, in the last fifteen years or so.
Identification can be tricky because the larvae of some caterpillars can change in appearance as they get larger and molt their cuticle; this typically occurs four or five times in most larvae of butterflies and moths. An interesting thing I learned from the Enchanted Learning website is that: "after the molt, while the new skin is still soft, they swallow a lot of air, which expands their body. Then, when the cuticle hardens, they let the air out and have room for growth." The "Insects of Hawaii" website gave information on what my caterpillar ate, and Pentas was one of the plants on which it dines, thus explaining the sad looking state of the plant on my shelf. I placed the caterpillar in a big mason jar with a screen lid and supplied the hungry larva with lots of Pentas leaves. In the morning, I was happy to see that it had eaten many of them, reassuring me that the identification was likely accurate. But later that day I found that it had stopped eating... and moving for that matter. Oh dear! Had I done something wrong? Was it alive? I gave it another day, and still nothing.
A few days later, my conscience was relieved: the caterpillar had pupated. All moths and butterflies undergo complete metamorphosis, a four-staged life cycle that includes the egg, the larva (caterpillar), the pupa, and the adult. My soon-to-be-moth was in that critical stage that seems like suspended animation, but in truth, it was undergoing a most dramatic transformation. A tough pupal skin had encased the caterpillar body. During this time there was little movement, though it would wriggle a bit if I moved it. Inside, the caterpillar body was being broken down, and cells called histoblasts were using the byproducts to build new tissue in the form of a moth. After a few weeks, the most miraculous event occurred: as I went to check on it, I noticed that the pupal casing had broken open. There, resting on the screen of the jar was a most beautiful looking moth, the vine hawk moth, hungry and fluttering its wings in anticipation of food. This moth species enjoys the nectar from Lantana camara, Duranta erecta and Ixora, all plants that are commonly found in Hawaii gardens and landscapes. After sharing it with some students, the moth was released to find its nectar plants, and to begin the cycle once again.
From the life-sustaining oceans, the ancients found many gifts. One was this, the Triton's Trumpet. The shell, beautiful and large, could produce a rich sound when its tip was filed down. Resounding out across the land and water, the blowing of the pu was used in various forms of communication, and often signified events of importance; for example, the arrival of royalty, or the beginning of the Makahiki season. Sacred protocols guided the use of the pu and the much cherished shells were passed down from generation to generation. In Hawaiian waters, pu were often made from the Horned Helmet (Cassis cornuta) and the Triton's Trumpet (Charonia tritonis), both large marine gastropod molluscs. Today's post features the Triton's Trumpet, the largest snail in our waters, reaching sizes up to twenty inches.
Like many sea snails, it has a shell that is spirally coiled (some snails have conical shells, and are generally referred to as limpets). The shell is ribbed and is a mottled brown and white in color. Locomotion is achieved by a strong, muscular foot, which this snail uses to pursue such prey as sea urchins and seastars. The triton's trumpet is one of the few organisms that prey on the crown-of-thorns seastar, which is notorious for feeding on and destroying corals, making our snail and important player in the marine ecosystem. Once the seastar has been captured, the triton holds it down with its strong foot. A saliva is injected which paralyzes its victim, then the snail gains easy access to the seastar's soft insides with its serrated radula, a tongue-like organ with scraping teeth. Though many sea snails are hermaphroditic, the tritons are either male or female. After internal fertilization, a cluster of eggs are laid. The buoyant young hatch and become part of the free-drifting plankton. Tritons can be found in waters from fairly shallow to about seventy-five feet deep, which makes them vulnerable to collectors. If you are lucky enough to spot this treasure, best to simply admire and leave it be, as they are becoming rarer across the globe. The corals will thank you for it.
If you're looking for attractive and native ground-huggers, Nanea and Pa'u o Hi'iaka have got you covered. Don't let their delicate flowers fool you; they are hardy, as their coastal to low-elevation habitat demands, tolerating wind, drought, heat, and salt spray.
Nanea (Vigna marina) is also known by the common name beach pea, and can spread a good five to fifteen feet while getting no taller than a foot. Keep your pruning shears handy, as it is a fast grower; a good clipping will also encourage denser growth. On the plus side, Nanea provides erosion control and is able to fix nitrogen from the air surrounding the roots, so no extra fertilizer need be applied. Neighboring plants will benefit from the nitrogen as well. The leaves are trifoliate, comprised of three leaflets with a pointed tip. In earlier times, they were pounded with the stems and midribs to make a poultice used to treat wounds. The fruit is, of course, a legume which turns brown upon ripening, and then opens and twists to release its seeds. Around the world are other Vigna species, which are closely related, and are well-known crop plants: adzuki beans, mung beans, and Chinese long beans, among others.
Pa'u o Hi'iaka known botanically as Jacquemontia ovalifolia sandwicensis, is another excellent groundcover and suitable for erosion control. It can be grown easily from stem cuttings, and may naturally root at the leaf nodes.The stems can twine along the ground for a good ten feet or so. As its bell-shaped flowers suggest, it is in the Convolvulaceae, or Morning glory family of plants. The leaves are thick and fleshy, and arise from stems covered in hairs, adaptations to dry environments. Pa'u o Hik'iaka was one of the plants I saw hacking out a living on the arid landscape of Kaho'olawe. It is told that the Hawaiian name for the plant came about when Pele took her sister Hi'iaka to the beach. Out went Pele to surf (or fish, as some may tell), leaving her sister. Pele got caught up in her pursuits, while her sister fell asleep under the hot Hawaiian sun. The gods, concerned about Hi'iaka, had the twining and vining plant form a thick mat over her, protecting her from sunburn. Thus the name, pa'u o Hi'iaka, which may translate as skirt of Hi'iaka.
Familiar to snorkelers in Hawaii and throughout the Indo-Pacific is this well-known reef fish, the Moorish Idol, also known as kihikihi, or Zanclus cornutus. Their bright bands of black and white smudged with yellow and their distinctive crested dorsal fin make them a real stand-out. Oh, but not so fast. Enter the Pennant Butterflyfish, another fish found in Hawaiian waters, that at first glance looks so similar you might be in for a case of mistaken identity. Not to worry, today's post will help you to see the Moorish Idol's true colors. For starters, notice the tail colors: the moorish idol sports a black tail trimmed in white while this butterfly species has an all yellow tail. The butterflyfish also lacks the yellow blush in the central band of white. Next observe the snout. The idol has an orange dollop atop the snout; the butterfly's is all white and less pronounced. Another key difference is the scales; they are visible on the butterflyfish, not so much on the idol. Finally, the butterflyfish feeds higher in the water column, while the idol prefers the ocean floor and reef where it feeds on sponges, coral polyps, and tunicates, and other tasty reef treats. The elongated snout is helpful for probing reef crevices for snacks. And while they are much sought after for the home aquarium, they do not tolerate captivity well and are best left in their natural habitat. Remember Gill from the movie "Finding Nemo"? He was a Moorish Idol, and you might recall that his primary goal in life was to escape the tank.
On her worldwide voyage, the Hokule'a will be joined by Hikianalia, the first wa'a to serve as an escort vessel. Both names come from sister stars that rise at about the same time, known as Arcturus and Spica in the West. They are important navigational stars in the star line Iwikuamo‘o ("Backbone") which runs from Hoku-pa'a (the North Star) at the North Celestial Pole to Hanai-a-ka-malama (the Southern Cross) near the South Celestial Pole (SCP). Today's post uses a simple astronomy phrase to help you locate them: "Arc to Arcturus, then drive a spike to Spica." Begin by finding the handle of the Big Dipper. Run your eyes down the handle, away from the bowl, and dive off in a graceful arc to Arcturus (Hokule'a). You'll notice this "Star of Gladness" is the brightest star in the western sky: bright enough to shine its yellow-orange glow through the city lights of Honolulu. Take a moment to wonder where the wa'a Hokule'a is on her journey and send a blessing to her crew. Now, drive a spike to Spica. She is south of Arcturus, and blue-white. Though not nearly as bright as her sister, she too can shine through a moonlit evening. Send out another blessing to her crew, and wish them both a wonderful huaka'i.
welcomes you to visit with the all the wonderful flora and fauna that we share this lovely aina with.