Nature Notes


All animals have one goal: to survive.  Everything about animals -- how they look and how they act-- relates to three basic drives: to eat, to escape from predators, and to reproduce (have babies). When we study animals, we look at the way they are made (structures), and the way they act (behaviors).  

A Nene, Hawaii’s state bird and perhaps the rarest goose in the world, stolls on a golf course.

Structure refers to more than just bones and muscles; it also means shape, size, body covering (fur, feathers, skin, or scales), and coloration.  Sometimes, structures and behaviors work together to help animals survive.  For instance, somebaby chicks living in the Alaskan tundra have colored markings (structures) that enable them to blend into their surroundings. They also instinctively sit absolutely still and close their eyes (behaviors) so that circling hawks can’t see them.

Human Impact

We have to learn how to share the planet with animals so that we (humans) and they (wild animals) can both survive. In the past, humans have destroyed animals, plants, and whole habitats without 
regard for the balance of nature.  

This 2-inch baby Honu will grow to be 4 or 5 feet in length.

Every day, we learn more about how plants and animals are important to human survival. One recent discovery, for instance, is a new clot-busting medicine used to treat people who have suffered strokes.  This new medicine is made from a chemical found in the saliva of vampire bats.  Who would have ever thought that an animal which has terrified people for centuries
would turn out to be a lifesaver? 

When we build new cities, shopping malls, and freeways, we cut into the habitats of animals. If we destroy habitats, we destroy the animals that depend on them. Can we develop ways to manage the growth of our living areas without harming wildlife? in the end, our own survival may depend on how well we do this.

For more information about the importance of protecting different species of wildlife, see “Biodiversity: The Fragile Web,” National Geographic, February 1999 (Vol. 195, No.2)

An endangered monk seal takes a nap on an Oahu beach.

Hawaii’s Natural History

The Hawaiian islands are unique in the natural world. Formed by volcanoes that rose from the ocean floor, the Hawaiian islands stand alone in the middle of the biggest ocean in the world. They are a work in progress -- in the northwest, old islands slowly sink below the ocean’s surface, while in the southeast, a new island rises under the sea. It is hard for animals and plants to cross the vast expanse of open ocean that lies between the Hawaiian islands and the nearest large land mass.  

All the plants and animals living on the islands before people arrived came in one of three ways: by wind, wing, or wave.  Some were blown to the islands; some flew here or were carried by birds, and some swam or floated.  All species that came to the islands changed in some way -- that is, they adapted to survive in their new environment.  If they could not adapt, they died.  Scientists have found evidence -- bones -- of bird species and a single bat species that once lived in Hawaii but did not survive to present times.

This male Kolea, ready to fly to Alaska, shows off his breeding plumage.

In the days before human contact, Hawaii had few predators. Over thousands of years, through many generations, Hawaiian plants and animals lived without threat and lost their natural defenses. When humans came to the islands around 800 BC, they brought new plants and animals with them.  These introduced species, more aggressive than native Hawaiian species, began to replace native plants and animals.  Later, when Europeans came to Hawaii, the numbers of introduced species increased rapidly, and native species began to disappear.  Today, visitors to Hawaii must travel high into the mountains to find native plants and animals.  Many are seen only in museums. 95% of all known extinctions in the United States have taken place in Hawaii.

On the other hand, hope is coming from many directions, including one unlikely source: golf courses. Many of Hawaii’s courses have joined forces with the National Audubon Society to become bird sanctuaries. One golf course in Kaneohe has four  endangered native birds living along its water holes: Hawaiian ducks, coots, gallinules, and stilts. At Barbers Point golf course, Kolea wait impatiently for golfers to get off grassy tee boxes while groups of  stilts squabbleover landing space.  On Kauai, golfers often have to wait for groups of Nene to walk off the greens.  Such happenings seem to prove that if we just give them space, these birds will thrive.

A mongoose, the worst natural enemy of Hawaii’s ground-nesting birds.

To read more about hawaiian natural history:

Hawaii’s Animals Do the Most Amazing Things! Coste, Marion. University of Hawaii Press, 2015.

Atlas of Hawaii (third edition), Juvik, Sonia P. and James O. Juvik, editors. University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

By Wind, By Wave: An Introduction to Hawaii’s Natural History, Eyre, David L. The Bess Press, 2000.

Islands in a Far Sea: The Fate of Nature in Hawaii, Culliney, John L. University of Hawaii Press, 20

A regal Hawaiian stilt stolls along a golf fairway.

            © Marion Coste 2016