A Haʻiku gulch full of suprises

The prickly seed ponds on this climbing vine led to a concernd Ha'iku resident reporting it to MISC as a potential invader. Turns out it is a native plant, Mucuna sloanei. Photo by Hank Oppenheimer

The prickly seed pods on this climbing vine led to a concerned Ha’iku resident reporting it to MISC as a potential invader. Turns out it is a native plant, Mucuna sloanei. Photo by Hank Oppenheimer

“Anything that bristly has got to be invasive,” said the Haʻiku resident who reported a vine that she found in the gulch on her family property. She called the Maui Invasive Species Committee (MISC) when neither she nor her relatives could identify the strange climber with seedpods covered in fiberglass-like hairs. No one in the family had noticed it before and they had worked or played in the gulch since small-kid times. She collected a specimen, prickly seedpods and all, and brought it into the MISC office.

Though bristly, it turned out not to be an invasive species after all. The unusual creeper was a native plant once widespread in low elevations on Maui and other Hawaiian Islands. Commonly known as seabean, botanists call it Mucuna sloanei.

Mucuna comes in two varieties: sloanei, indigenous to Hawaiʻi; and persericea, endemic to windward East Maui and found nowhere else in the world. There are only a few of the persericea plants left. Because of the rarity of the persericea variety, and the damage caused by pigs and cattle to its habitat, the vine was recently listed as endangered by the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service. The possibility that it could be thriving in a Haʻiku gulch, only a stone’s throw from the Haʻiku Marketplace, was therefore pretty exciting. But it takes an expert to know the difference between the two varieties and Hank Oppenheimer fits the bill.

Oppenheimer is the Maui Nui Coordinator for the Plant Extinction Prevention Program (PEPP), a Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit project that works to protect the most rare and threatened plants in Hawaiʻi. Throughout the state, a handful of people like Oppenheimer and technician Keahi Bustamente hike deep into remote forests, scaling cliffs and doing whatever they can to prevent the rarest species’ extinction. This includes collecting seeds from rare Hawaiian plants, propagating them in greenhouses, and then outplanting the precious plants in protected habitat.

For plants, garnering listing as a PEPP species of interest is a mixed blessing; it means there are less than 50 individuals left in the wild. Oppenheimer is investigating the distribution of persericea to determine if it should be included with the other 236 PEPP targets.

Finding the native Mucuna sloanei was a pleasant surprise. Photo by Hank Oppenheimer

Finding the native Mucuna sloanei was a pleasant surprise. Photo by Hank Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer and Bustamente headed to the Ha’iku gulch. The vine turned out to be the more common sloanei, but Oppenheimer was still excited. “It was really interesting to see Mucuna in a place like that,” he said. Most of the habitat for Mucuna has been turned into pasture, farmland, or long ago taken over by invasive plants.

But as the team was leaving the gulch, they made a troubling discovery. Bustamente noticed an unusual plant with massive 2-3 foot long leaves, purple on the underside. He knew it instantly as miconia. This notorious pest and MISC target was certainly out of place; miconia is primarily between Keʻanae and Hāna. The discovery marks the westernmost naturally occurring plant in recent history.

So when the Haʻiku resident reported what she thought was an invasive vine, she actually helped uncover a relatively rare native species as well as one of the most invasive plants in Hawaiʻi. A great example of the more you look, the more you find.

Can you spot the miconia plant? The characteristic  large leaves with purple undersides cued botanists in to  this plant's presence in a Ha'iku Gulch. MISC file photo

Can you spot the miconia plant? The characteristic large leaves with purple undersides cued botanists into this plant’s presence in a Ha’iku Gulch. MISC file photo

To learn more about the Plant Extinction Prevention Program, visit the website www.pepphi.org. And if you think you may have Mucuna on your property, contact Hank Oppenheimer at henryo@hawaii.edu. If you would like help identifying an unusual plant, native or not, you can find a number of resources available online, including the Flikr site “Hawaii Plant ID,” curated by some of the state’s best botanists, or you can call MISC at 573-6472, particularly if you think you’ve found miconia.

Lissa Strohecker is the public relations and education specialist for the Maui Invasive Species Committee. She holds a biological sciences degree from Montana State University. Kia’i Moku, “Guarding the Island,” is prepared by the Maui Invasive Species Committee to provide information on protecting the island from invasive plants and animals that can threaten the island’s environment, economy and quality of life.

Originally published in the Maui News, April 12th, 2015 as part of the Kia‘i Moku Column from the Maui Invasive Species Committee.

Mapping the Kamehameha butterfly with your help

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A Kamehameha butterfly on Waiheʻe ridge on Maui. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr

Brilliant orange and fluttering through the forest, the Kamehameha butterfly, or pulelehua, is our state insect. It’s one of only two butterfly species native to Hawaiʻi, and its ancestors flew to these Islands long before the first humans stepped ashore.

Knowing māmaki  is in your area can cue you in to looking for Kamehameha butterflies. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr

Knowing māmaki is in your area can cue you in to looking for Kamehameha butterflies. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr

“A lot of butterflies could have arrived here,” says University of Hawaiʻi researcher Will Haines. “But unless they could find a host plant they died.” The Kamehameha butterfly’s ancestors had suitable hosts: Hawaiian māmaki and other close relatives in the nettle family. The pulelehua caterpillars feed only on these native plants, once common throughout the Islands. But as humans transformed forests into fields and pastures, and invasive species spread from backyards, the māmaki, olonā, and ōpuhe plants became scarce. As this caterpillar food became less common at lower elevations, so did the Kamehameha butterfly. Today, any low-elevation populations of the butterfly depend on the scattered māmaki plants found in gulches, and this endemic butterfly is mostly found in the native forests higher in the mountains where food is more plentiful.

The ancestors of the Kamehameha butterfly  found a food source in māmaki and related plants in the nettle family. Photo by Nathan Yuen

The ancestors of the Kamehameha butterfly found a food source in māmaki and related plants in the nettle family. Photo by Nathan Yuen

But thanks to an exciting citizen science activity, the Pulelehua Project, researchers are discovering that the Kamehameha butterfly is fluttering around in surprising places.  Like a community on the North Shore of Oʻahu and a backyard in Kēōkea on Maui. “This butterfly is a strong flyer – it seems to be cruising through,” says Haines.

The Pulelehua Project emerged out of Haines’ research. With funding from the State of Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Forestry and Wildlife,  Haines has been investigating various threats to the species’ survival in the field and mapping the Kamehameha butterfly’s distribution throughout the state. Mapping butterflies across the archipelago is a big job; Haines thought others may be interested in helping.

The tiny egg case of the Kamehameha butterfly. Photo by Will Haines

The tiny egg case of the Kamehameha butterfly resembles a sea-urchin shell. Photo by Will Haines.

Kamehameha butterflies are charismatic and relatively easy to recognize, so Haines started contacting other conservation groups for help for help. He created a website, www.kamehamehabutterfly.com, filled with resources to help amateur entomologists identify the species in its different and fascinating life stages, from tiny urchin-shell like eggs to colorful adults. The website has excellent photographs of the eggs, caterpillars, adults, and their favored host plants. Butterfly lovers across the state volunteered– reports came in from conservationists and the public alike.

The Kamehameha butterfly can be recogized by the pattern of white patches on the upper surface of the forewings.  Pulelehua has only three main white patches in this area (though some are divided by dark wing veins). Look-alike butterflies have more white spots. Photo by Nathan Yuen

The Kamehameha butterfly can be recognized by the pattern of white or light patches on the upper surface of the forewings. Pulelehua has only three main white patches in this area (though some are divided by dark wing veins). Look-alike butterflies have more white spots. Photo by Nathan Yuen

To date, the reports have turned up 52 confirmed sightings of the iconic state insect. Anyone can participate and reports can be recent sightings or several years old, so long as there is a photo to accompany the information about when and where the butterfly, caterpillar, egg, or even feeding damage was observed. The data collected from the mapping project will help Haines and his colleagues better estimate the distribution of the pulelehua and could shape efforts to restore habitat for the Kamehameha butterfly.

The project is ongoing and you can help. Checking a māmaki patch is a good place to start. If you have māmaki in your area, or find māmaki while out hiking, inspect the leaves for eggs, caterpillars, and even feeding damage, and submit a report.

Caterpillars of the Kamehameha butterfly can be several different colors, from green to brown, but always covered in spines and bumps. Photo by Will Haines.

Caterpillars of the Kamehameha butterfly can be several different colors, from green to brown, but always covered in spines and bumps. Photo by Will Haines.

Use the photos on the website to make sure you’ve got the right butterfly. At one time, the Kamehameha butterfly was the only pair of orange wings around, but now, painted ladies, red admirals, monarchs, and gulf fritillary all flit through Hawaiʻi yards and forests. These exotic species, which can easily be confused with adult pulelehua, do not seem to pose a threat to the native butterfly.  Other insects do. Ants, and potentially the little fire ant to a greater degree, can prey on caterpillars and the pupa in the chrysalis. Introduced katydids have an appetite for butterfly eggs. And, as the caterpillars of Kamehameha butterfly don’t dine on introduced nettles, it’s critical to protect their native food source.

The caterpillars create a distinctive pattern as the munch māmaki leaves. This  distinct pattern can bu used to document the presence of the Kamehameha butterfly. Photo by Will Haines

The caterpillars create a distinctive pattern as the munch māmaki leaves. This distinct pattern can bu used to document the presence of the Kamehameha butterfly. Photo by Will Haines

These are all reasons to take your butterfly-hunting habit to the next level. To attract the Kamehameha butterfly to your yard, plant māmaki and encourage your neighbors to do the same. A single plant can support ten caterpillars, but according to Haines, it’s more about establishing a critical mass of māmaki across the landscape. Physical barriers, like tanglefoot, a tacky substance designed to keep crawling critters from climbing up plants, can protect eggs and caterpillars from ants and other predatory insects. Learn more about the Pulelehua Project and submit sightings at www.kamehamehabutterfly.com.

Lissa Strohecker is the public relations and education specialist for the Maui Invasive Species Committee. She holds a biological sciences degree from Montana State University. Kia’i Moku, “Guarding the Island,” is prepared by the Maui Invasive Species Committee to provide information on protecting the island from invasive plants and animals that can threaten the island’s environment, economy and quality of life.

Originally published in the Maui News, June 14th, 2015 as part of the Kia‘i Moku Column from the Maui Invasive Species Committee.

Make your yard less frog-friendly

Coqui spend their days foraging in leaf litter for ants and other insects. They do not have a tadpole stage, and therefore do not need standing water to reproduce. Coqui lay eggs inside a rolled or folded up leaf, leaf litter, damp moss, or other shelter sites. By limiting the areas they can forage and nest, you will make your yard less appealing to coqui frogs and control efforts will be more effective

How to make your landscaping less coqui-friendly:

  1. Limit and/or remove rubbish and green waste piles (chip it up), coqui like to hide in green waste. If you have coqui in your green waste pile, spray well with citric before moving
  2. Don’t plant bromeliads or consider replacing them.
  3. If you have cane grass, mow it.
  4. Remove dead leaves on banana, ti, and other plants with large leaves
  5. Thin out understory vegetation.

Find more tips for eliminating frog-friendly habitat here:  http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/coqui/eliminate.asp

MISC Coqui Crew’s Top 5 Coqui Catching Tips

You can hear the coqui, but you can’t seem to find it? Have been out at night with your flashlight (maybe even in your pajamas) trying to catch that little guy so you can get a good night’s sleep?  Keep reading to find out how the professionals do it. Below, the MISC coqui crew offers their Top 5 tips to find out where that coqui is so you can hand-catch or spray it.

Please help us understand how coqui are moving on Maui – report frogs, even the ones you have caught/controlled yourself, to the MISC coqui crew: 573-6472, miscpr@hawaii.edu.

MISC Crew’s Top 5 Coqui Catching Tips

  1. Look in the right spot: coqui tend to hide in green waste and between the leaves of bromeliads, bananas, and ti leaves.
  2. Turn off house lights and flashlights, then listen and move closer.
  3. Stay quiet or try whistling softly to encourage frog to call back.
  4. Don’t turn on your flashlight until you have pinpointed the frog’s location, then spray where you hear the frog until it’s quiet.
  5. Wait a few minutes to see if frog continues to call. If you are trying to hand-capture a frog and miss, come back in 20 minutes; frogs typically return to the same spot.

Citric Mixing Guidelines

Making your own citric solution:

  • MISC recommends mixing citric at a 5% solution or 1lb per gallon. The best method is to mix the solution by weight it but if you mix by volume use approximately 2 1/4 cups per gallon.
  • Citric dissolves in solution, but it needs to be thoroughly mixed as a citric chunk will clog your sprayer.
  • We can supply you with citric or you can also purchase it on Amazon. Call coqui crew at 573-6472.

Storage:

  • Do not store citric solution as it will corrode plastic container. Spray out all mixed solution (you may be hitting nests) and rinse sprayer with water after use.
  • Unmixed citric should be kept dry and out of direct sun.

Common-sense caution:

  • Citric may burn some sensitive plants, particularly on new growth, ferns, or orchids. You can reduce damage by rinsing off spray 1 hour after application.
  • Personal Protective Equipment: Citric acid can irritate your skin. Wear shoes, long-sleeves, eye protection and ear protection if applicable (for when using gas-powered sprayers).

Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death – a new threat to our watersheds

This ohia tree shows one of the characteristic symptoms of Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death - the tree looks frozen or burnt, leaves still in place. Photo by J.B. Friday This ʻōhiʻa tree shows one of the characteristic symptoms of Rapid Ohia Death - the tree looks frozen or burnt, leaves still in place. Photo by J.B. Friday

This ohia tree shows one of the characteristic symptoms of Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death – the tree looks frozen or burnt, leaves still in place. Photo by J.B. Friday
This ʻōhiʻa tree shows one of the characteristic symptoms of Rapid Ohia Death – the tree looks frozen or burnt, leaves still in place. Photo by J.B. Friday

Five years ago, people living in the Puna district on Hawaiʻi Island started seeing native ʻōhiʻatrees in their yards dying. First, the leaves on a single limb or the whole tree would start to yellow and brown. Within days or weeks, the tree would be dead. “Trees look burnt or frozen,” explains Dr. Flint Hughes, a research ecologist with the USDA-Forest Service. He’s one of several scientists investigating the cause of Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death, an apt description for a disease causing ʻōhiʻa to die so fast they don’t have time to drop their leaves.

Symptoms can appear in a single branch or the entire canopy of a tree. Pruning the affected brance will not save the tree since the Ceratocytis fungus is already established in throughout the tree. Photo by J. B. Friday

Symptoms can appear in a single branch or the entire canopy of a tree. Pruning the affected brance will not save the tree since the Ceratocytis fungus is already established in throughout the tree. Photo by J. B. Friday

The disease spreads across landscapes nearly as fast. In 2012, it had killed ʻōhiʻa across about 1000 hectares (nearly 2500 acres). By last summer, it covered 6000 hectares. Healthy trees, young trees, old trees–it doesn’t matter—once symptoms appear, the tree will be dead within weeks.

A disease this virulent is potentially catastrophic for native species and watersheds. ʻōhiʻa are a keystone species for a Hawaiian rainforest. Like the uppermost stone in an arch, ʻōhiʻa is critical to the structure and function of the forest, both as refuge for native birds and other species, and as an effective way to transform what falls as rain into what comes out of the tap.

Last year, Hughes and his colleagues began to research what was happening. They knew it was a new phenomenon and not related to any previously known problems in ʻōhiʻa, such as ʻōhiʻa dieback or ʻōhiʻa rust. Within six months they had isolated the pathogen causing Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death. The disease is caused by a fungus, Ceratocytis fimbriata. It gets into the sapwood of ʻōhiʻa, stopping the tree’s ability to transport water and sugars. “The fungus essentially strangles the tree,” says Hughes.

The ceratocytis fungus responsible for killing ohia accross 15,000 acres on Hawaii Island can be seen as a dark staining in the sapwood. Photo by J.B. Friday

The ceratocytis fungus responsible for killing ohia accross 15,000 acres on Hawaii Island can be seen as a dark staining in the sapwood. Photo by J.B. Friday

Isolating the cause of Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death, also called Ceratocytis wilt of ʻōhiʻa, is the first step. Ceratocytis has been present in Hawaiʻi for decades. In the Islands, it’s known only as a pathogen on sweet potato and taro, never before attacking ʻōhiʻa. In other parts of the world, Ceratocytis infects sycamore, eucalyptus, mango, coffee, cacao, citrus, poplar, fig, and rubber trees.

Researchers have yet to determine the origin of this recent outbreak—more than likely a new, more virulent strain of Ceratocytis was introduced but it is possible the existing strain jumped to ʻōhiʻa.

One of the researchers’ top priorities is determining how the disease is spreading. Other places

The Ceratocytis fungus spreads throughout the sapwood or vascular system of the ohia, eventually strangling the tree. The dark staining in this cross-section of an ohia is a symptom of infection  by the Ceratocytis fungus. Photo by J.B. Friday

The Ceratocytis fungus spreads throughout the sapwood or vascular system of the ohia, eventually strangling the tree. The dark staining in this cross-section of an ohia is a symptom of infection by the Ceratocytis fungus. Photo by J.B. Friday

in the world, insects and contaminated equipment are vectors for spreading Ceratocytis, and that could be the case in Hawaiʻi. Until that’s determined, Hughes urges people not to move ʻōhiʻa—logs or seedlings. The fungus can survive in dead logs for a year or more. He suggests that it’s even possible that Ceratocytis spores may land on plants growing near ʻōhiʻa and movement of those plants may spread the disease

On Hawaiʻi Island some of the nicest stands of low-elevation ʻōhiʻa are gone, but researchers are not giving up. “One of the hopes is that we’ll see some genetic resistance in ʻōhiʻa, or there may be environmental constraints,” says Hughes. On Hawaiʻi Island, Ceratocytis has been found as high as about 1,400’ elevation in Mountain View, but that may reflect the relatively recent introduction rather than the full extent of its potential range.

Fungal spores of Ceratocytis on a dead log. The fungus can survive in dead logs for a year or more, and the disease can infect the plants for 2-3 months before symptoms appear. Help stop the spread by not moving ohia-logs or seedlings. Photo by J.B.Friday

Fungal spores of Ceratocytis on a dead log. The fungus can survive in dead logs for a year or more, and the disease can infect the plants for 2-3 months before symptoms appear. Help stop the spread by not moving ohia-logs or seedlings. Photo by J.B.Friday

They do know that the fungus can be present for months before any symptoms appear. During pathogenicity testing, ʻōhiʻa trees showed symptoms two or three months after inoculation. Pruning a symptomatic branch will not necessarily protect the tree as the fungus may have already spread throughout the tree and possibly to nearby trees.

Researchers have much to learn about Ceratocytis wilt on ʻōhiʻa. For now, they encourage people to clean boots and equipment after working on infested trees and caution against interisland movement of ʻōhiʻa logs and seedlings.  Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death is only known to occur on Hawaiʻi Island. If you are on Maui or elsewhere in the Islands and see symptoms:  leaves quickly turning yellow or brown, dead trees looking burnt or frozen with leaves still in place, or tell-tale brown streaking on the dead wood, contact Hughes by phone, 808-854-2617, or e-mail fhughes@fs.fed.us Learn more online at http://www2.ctahr.hawaii.edu/forestry/disease/ohia_wilt.html

Lissa Strohecker is the public relations and education specialist for the Maui Invasive Species Committee. She holds a biological sciences degree from Montana State University. Kia’i Moku, “Guarding the Island,” is prepared by the Maui Invasive Species Committee to provide information on protecting the island from invasive plants and animals that can threaten the island’s environment, economy and quality of life.

Originally published in the Maui News, May 10th, 2015 as part of the Kia‘i Moku Column from the Maui Invasive Species Committee.

Now accepting nominations for the 2015 Malama i ka Aina Award

Varez imageNominations are now being accepted to honor invasive species prevention efforts within Maui County.  The Malama i ka Aina Award is presented annually to a landscaper, plant provider (retail and wholesale nurseries and garden shops), or commercial/agricultural property owner/manager to recognize their efforts to keep invasive species out of Maui County.

The award is a cooperative effort of the Maui Association of Landscape Professionals, the Maui Invasive Species Committee, and the County of Maui.

The winner will be announced Saturday, June 20th at the Maui Association of Landscape Professionals’ Lawn & Garden Fair at the Maui Mall.  The winner will receive a plaque, a glass sculpture by artist Jupiter Nielsen, a one-year free membership with the Maui Association of Landscape Professionals and local media recognition.

Applicants are requested to explain how the nominee’s activities or decisions have contributed to keeping Maui free from invasive species. Examples include: not selling or using invasive plants; steps taken to learn about invasives; and efforts to reduce the use of invasive species by other customers.

Applications are due by May 30th, 2015 and are available via this link: 2015 Malama i ka `Aina Award On-line Application-2

You may submit completed nominations via  email to miscpr@hawaii.edu, fax to 573-6475, or mail to MISC at P.O. Box 983, Makawao, HI 96768. There is no fee to apply. Self-nominations are welcome.  For more information, call 573-MISC (6472), or e-mail miscpr@hawaii.edu.

Past Malama i ka Aina Award recipients were recognized for meaningful steps taken to prevent the spread of invasive species, including incorporating codes-of-conduct in business practices, educating the public and clients about invasive species, and encouraging the use of native species in landscape design. Actions of award recipients are steps in the right direction!

Invasive species can sting aloha

Photo courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr.

Photo courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr.

Aunty Penny Martin is a lei-maker on Molokaʻi. She was talking story one day with a friend visiting from Hawaiʻi Island, and the conversation turned as it often does, to lei-making.  The friend had a lime-green hydrangea growing in her yard and offered to bring her some. “As a lei maker, the hydrangea are the best for making lei po‘o (lei for the head),” said Aunty Penny. “I was really excited to see.”

At their next meeting, her friend had brought the beautiful flowers from Hawaiʻi Island. “I was overcome by the hydrangea,” she said. “I was ooh-in and ahh-ing,” Then she noticed her friend must have picked them on the go, bagging them before leaving to go to the airport so they would be fresh.  While the lei-maker was touched by the gesture, the sight of the freshly bagged hydrangea triggered a thought.  “It was like an epiphany—I’m thinking fire ants, coqui. I really wanted it….my hands were just itching to make that lei.”

The lime-green hydrangea ended up double bagged to contain any pests and buried at the Molokaʻi landfill. “It would have been easy to stop thinking responsibly,” said Aunty Penny.

As every malahini (newcomer) soon learns, the expansive aloha spirit also celebrates the bounty

The aloha spirit celebrates the bounty of the land, but invasive species threaten to change the practice of bringing gifts from our homes.

The aloha spirit celebrates the bounty of the land, but invasive species threaten to change the practice of bringing gifts from our homes.

of the land. Sharing in that bounty goes beyond good manners–it’s culture. Bringing gifts from your home, be they avocados or citrus, flowers or orchids, even cream puffs or manapua from a local bakery, is part of our way of life.

But as devastating pests like little fire ants become established on some islands and not others, our culture may change. “That kind of sharing and exchanging—pretty soon not going to be the norm, ‘cause you’re going to be worried about things,” says Aunty Penny.

Concerns about invasive species affect even the most traditional of cultural practices. Last summer, a group of students on Big Island helped place lei on every known burial site at Kalaupapa on Molokaʻi to remember those who lived and died there.  The lei brought from the Big Island were made of ti leaves, chosen in part because they could withstand freezing to kill any little fire ants.

Invasive species have affected cultural practices in other ways:  apple snails munch taro throughout much of the state, scale insects on hala can ruin the leaves for weavers in East Maui, and mites threaten the coconut groves planted for King Kamehameha V on Molokaʻi.

Lei-makers often share material between islands. Increasing concerns about transporting pests is beginning to hamper that practice. Photo courtesy of Maui Nui Botanical Garden.

Lei-makers often share material between islands. Increasing concerns about transporting pests is beginning to hamper that practice. Photo courtesy of Maui Nui Botanical Garden.

“I grew up with the tradition of bringing lei from island to island,” says Aunty Penny. “It just crushes me that now I have to think about fire ants and coqui.” Hawaiʻi residents don’t have to stop sharing plants and flowers with friends, but taking a few minutes to check that the gifts are free of unintentional hitchhikers will help keep the natural environment and native culture intact. “I loved that hydrangea,” says Aunty Penny, “but I love Molokaʻi more.”

Lissa Strohecker is the public relations and education specialist for the Maui Invasive Species Committee. She holds a biological sciences degree from Montana State University. Kia’i Moku, “Guarding the Island,” is prepared by the Maui Invasive Species Committee to provide information on protecting the island from invasive plants and animals that can threaten the island’s environment, economy and quality of life.

Originally published in the Maui News, March 8th, 2015 as part of the Kia‘i Moku Column from the Maui Invasive Species Committee.

Got Guano?

This albatross colony on Midway Atoll is representative of what the historic density of seabirds may have been throughout Hawaiʻi. Declines in the seabird population  have an impact throughout the ecosystem. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr.

This albatross colony on Midway Atoll is representative of what the historic density of seabirds may have been throughout Hawaiʻi. Declines in the seabird population have an impact throughout the ecosystem. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr.

When horticulturalists at Maui Nui Botanical Gardens want to give an extra boost to their most sensitive and critically endangered Hawaiian plants, they bring out the seabird and bat guano. Why guano? It’s the natural nutrient-packed fertilizer that Hawaiian plants are used to.

Prior to the first canoe reaching Hawaiian shores, taloned and feathered beasts ruled these Islands. Scientists estimate that seabird populations on the main Hawaiian Islands were equivalent to what the 18th century explorers found on the Northwest Hawaiian Islands–in other words, plentiful. Some accounts indicate seabirds were so abundant they blackened the sky. And if they could darken the sky with their wings, they were certainly capable of whitening the ground with their poop, aka guano.

Bird droppings may not be welcome on your car, but plants benefit from the splattered remains of a seabird’s meal. Guano is a gift for growing seedlings: high in nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium–nutrients essential for plant development. The more guano drops from the sky, the more plants sprout from the ground. This growth affects the entire ecosystem. As plants decompose, they provide plentiful and nutritious food for insects, nematodes, snails, and assorted detritivores, as well as soil bacteria and fungus.

An ʻuʻau chick in a burrow. Once plentiful, the ground nesting Hawaiian petrel is critically endgangered, threatened by feral cats, mongoose, and barn owls. Photo by Jay Penniman

An ʻuaʻu chick in a burrow. Once plentiful, the ground nesting Hawaiian petrel is critically endangered, threatened by feral cats, mongoose, and barn owls. Photo by Jay Penniman

Hawaii’s seabird populations are only a fraction of what they once were. The ‘ua‘u, or Hawaiian petrel, was once the most abundant seabird in the Islands. Today this burrowing resident is endangered. In Maui County, remnant populations exist atop the summits of Haleakalā on Maui and Lānaʻihale on Lānaʻi. The reason for the species’ decline is simple, yet irreversible. They were gobbled up by people, rats, mongoose, and barn owls; the hillsides where the birds nested are now pastures, golf courses, farms, and shopping centers. Other seabirds, such as the wedge-tailed shearwater, Newell’s shearwater, and Bulwer’s petrel once filled the air with their cries; these species now live in scattered, isolated populations.

If efforts to restore seabird colonies on the main Hawaiian Islands are successful, this may be a site any resident or visitor to Hawaii can see. For now, you have to visit Midway to see Laysan albatross this dense. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr.

If efforts to restore seabird colonies on the main Hawaiian Islands are successful, this may be a site any resident or visitor to Hawaii can see. For now, you have to visit Midway to see Laysan albatross this dense. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr.

Fewer seabirds mean fewer plant fertilizers. We may never fully understand how declines in pelagic bird populations impact the environment in Hawaiʻi, but research on islands in New Zealand offers some insight into what happens when avian populations crash due to introduced predators. Comparing islands that had been invaded by rats with those still dominated by seabirds, researchers found that the soil on rat-infested islands had a much different nutrient composition and pH. Additionally, the types and abundance of insects and other invertebrates varied, possibly due to differing rates of plant growth and nutrient uptake. The scientists concluded that reducing the seabird population triggers effects that cascade through entire ecosystems, down to the smallest microorganism.

Back in Hawaiʻi, there’s an opportunity to find out what happens in reverse–how a seabird-based ecosystem can recover when the invaders are removed. At Kaʻena point on Oʻahu, rats have been eradicated A predator-proof fence now prevents rodents from re-entering the 59-acre protected area. The resurgence of seabirds, with their increasing deposits of poop, will soon boost nitrogen and stimulate the recovery of native plants.

The loss of a single species has implications for the entire ecosystem. In this case, it’s just about the birds, it’s about what they leave behind, what lives off that, and on and on, all the way down.

You can support the restoration of Hawaiian seabird populations. Visit websites for Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project (www.mauinuiseabirds.org/restoration/) and Hawaiʻi Offshore Islet Restoration Committee to learn more (http://www.hawaiioirc.org/about-us/).

Lissa Strohecker is the public relations and education specialist for the Maui Invasive Species Committee. She holds a biological sciences degree from Montana State University. Kia’i Moku, “Guarding the Island,” is prepared by the Maui Invasive Species Committee to provide information on protecting the island from invasive plants and animals that can threaten the island’s environment, economy and quality of life.

Originally published in the Maui News, February 8th, 2015 as part of the Kia‘i Moku Column from the Maui Invasive Species Committee.