BIRDS, WIND ENCOURAGE PACIFIC LIFE DIVERSITY

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By Jan Tenbruggencate

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (January 31, 2000 – The Honolulu Advertiser)---The diversity of native life forms in Hawai‘i is amazing, considering the archipelago’s isolation.

Perhaps even more remarkable is how far many of those species have been able to go.

One of the most prominent trees in the Hawaiian forest is the ‘ohi‘a. On a recent visit to New Zealand, I found a couple of species of the same genus of trees, complete with red starburst flowers. Down there, one of them is called ‘rata.’

In the Southern Ocean, Stewart Island (which lies south across the Foveaux Strait from New Zealand’s South Island) is cool in summer by Hawai‘i’s standard. The moderating effect of the ocean around it tends to inhibit snow and ice, but it still gets good and cold in the winter. It lies at 47 degrees south, nearly twice as far from the equator as Hawai‘i is.

Perhaps because of the limited freezing, plants that survive in upland forests in the Hawaiian Islands also have been able to thrive in the Stewart Island woods. Each also appears to have some feature that makes them amenable to long-distance transport.

The seeds of the ‘ohi‘a-rata are extremely tiny. They might be caught in the feathers of migrating birds, like the Pacific golden plover, which nests in the Arctic, but during the northern winters heads for islands across the north and South Pacific.

In the Stewart Island forests, there are ferns similar to Hawai‘i ferns. The spores of these ferns are light enough to travel on the wind, and were likely spread from island to island in that way.

There were shrubs that looked nearly identical to the Hawaiian pukiawe. There are relatives of the ‘olapa, a Hawaiian forest tree whose leaves flutter in the slightest breeze.

I came across a tree that looked much like Hawai‘i’s naio, the false sandalwood, which grows from the shoreline to the high mountains and whose wood is strongly scented. The flowers were small and white like the Hawaiian naio, and the leaves had a similar shape, but were shinier.

When I identified the tree to a native New Zealander, she said her name for the tree is ngaio, pronounced almost identically to the Hawaiian word.

While each of the familiar plants was clearly related to its Hawaiian cousin, each was also somewhat different—either a different variety or a different species. There is no guessing how long ago they diverged from a presumed common ancestor, and each has evolved to become unique.

For early Polynesian voyagers, the travels of the plants, birds and insects that preceded them must have been a comfort. Each new island they found would have had recognizable life forms, with whose qualities they were familiar.

For additional reports from The Honolulu Advertiser, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Honolulu Advertiser.

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