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Migrating Naturalist: The Endangered Islands

The Nene (or Hawaiian Goose) is Hawaii’s state bird. This early morning photo was taken in Haleakala National Park, a protected area.

When you visit the Hawaiian Islands, one of the first things you notice is the vibrant profusion of plant and animal life. Bright colours, enticing scents, and exotic species surround you, welcoming you to the tropics the moment you step off the plane. But despite this apparent abundance, you might be surprised to hear that Hawaii is actually the endangered species capital of the world. There are more extinct and endangered species per square mile than anywhere else on the planet. What’s almost worse is that there are also a huge number of species which are basically “living dead”, as they still exist in small numbers, but will almost surely go extinct soon. There are three main explanations for this current mass extinction.

Firstly, the way that an island evolves plays a large role. The theory of Island Bio-geography explains that the species diversity on an island is the result of a balance between extinction and colonization. The size of an island and its distance from the mainland will determine how many species can live there. For example, a small island far from the mainland has a much smaller chance of having diverse species, compared with a large island close to the mainland. As the Hawaiian Islands are extremely isolated, they have a very low natural rate of new species arrival to balance out extinction.

Unfortunately, human impact also has a large influence on extinction. When we move into an area, we tend to mould it to fit our convenience, with little care for the creatures already living there. We have destroyed a huge proportion of natural habitats in Hawaii, eliminating homes for a staggering number of species in the process.

The final factor affecting species loss is invasion of plants or animals that do not naturally occur in an area. Instead, they are imported by other means, most commonly through human activity. Many of these possess adaptations that give them a competitive edge over native species, which evolve in harmony with those around them. Prime examples of invasive species that have devastated Hawaii include pigs and goats, initially brought over as livestock but gone wild, devouring native plants and soil. It is for this reason that Hawaii imposes such strict regulations on bringing plant or animal species into/out of the country. It is absolutely vital that we understand the importance of protecting and preserving our vital and often rare native species, wherever it is we may call home.

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