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Hawai`i's Environmental Concerns

The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated islands in the world, surrounded by the vast Pacific Ocean. Hawaii is more than 2,500 miles from North America and 3,900 miles from Asia. Situated over a “hot spot”, a thin spot in the earth’s crust, undersea eruptions over the last 40 million years have grown to become the Hawaiian Islands. Today, Mauna Loa Volcano on the Big Island, rises some 35,000 feet from the ocean bottom to its’ summit. Almost 14,000 feet of its’ elevation is above the oceans surface.

Over millions of years, the founders of Hawaii’s flora and fauna evolved in isolation and without the pressures of mammal grazers, predators, and diseases. Because of this, Hawaii’s Native plants, invertebrates and birds evolved differently from their mainland counterparts. Plants had no need for thorns, spines or chemicals that ward off mammal grazers, as none of these creatures ever reached Hawaii on their own.

Looking at a list of Hawaii’s flora you will see plants like thorn-less raspberries, briar-less green briars, nettle-less nettles, even mint-less mints. Hawaii’s birds also evolved without pressures from mammal predators and disease. Countless species, known from fossil evidence, were flightless, including a giant flightless duck or Moa Nalo. A single colonization of finch-like birds, about  5 - 5.5 million years ago, evolved to become the Hawaiian Honeycreepers, an endemic sub-family of birds with over 50 species. Most of these honeycreepers are specialists, evolving into an amazing array of bill form and color. Unfortunately, the very isolation that produced Hawaii’s spectacular flora and fauna is also causing it’s endangerment and extinction.

It has been estimated that only one colonization every 20,000-40,000 years, and subsequent adaptive radiation and speciation, is all that was needed to account for all of Hawaii’s native plants and animals. Today, alien species get to Hawaii at a much greater rate than in the distant past. Ships carry food and goods to Hawaii from the world over, and jets arrive hourly. Each ship and plane can potentially carry plants, animals, insects, and diseases that can impact native ecosystems. Today, the rate of colonization by alien species is estimated to be about 10-20 species per year!


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