From out of a vast, dark sea, a small area of lights appeared below. The landing went smoothly. As my parents and I descended the stairs onto the tarmac, steamy air made us regret our long pants and sleeves. With almost magical speed, we’d just arrived on the most isolated populated landmass in the world: Hawaii. As different as this tropical paradise is from the Northwoods, I still found plenty of natural connections.
Several years ago we visited another remote island—Isle Royale. While Isle Royale is much smaller and closer to the mainland, our trip to Hawaii was less strenuous and uncomfortable than the ferry ride across an angry, wave-tossed Lake Superior. Neither place is easy to visit. On that trip, I found myself asking everyone—human, plant, animal, and fungus— “How did you get here?” Now, on Hawaii, that question emerged again.
In preparation for the trip, I’d purchased a book titled “Wind, Wings, and Waves: A Hawaii Nature Guide” by Rick Soehren. Those are the means by which life began to colonize the freshly cooled lava of these remote volcanic islands about 70 million years ago.
Our stay on Maui quickly highlighted the importance of wind to these unprotected islands. The Maalaea Harbor on Maui, where we launched for both a whale watch and snorkel tour, is one of the windiest harbors in the world. High surf warnings dominated my weather app for our entire stay, due to powerful gusts from the north. We stood in awe at huge waves crashing on the shore. Might that wind still bring new arrivals to the islands?
Being small and lightweight is key for wind dispersal, and the tiny spores of ferns are ideal. There are 200+ species of ferns on the Hawaiian Islands, but while the first ones blew in, many more evolved right there, and now occur nowhere else in the world. One of those 125 endemic species is ‘Ama’u, a beautiful fern that reminds me of our local cinnamon fern in the way that they grow in a beautiful vase-shaped cluster, and color their young fronds in a cinnamon shade to act as sunscreen. They are tough, and often stand as lonely pioneers on fresh, black lava flows.
Growing near the ‘Ama’u ferns are often ‘Ohi’a trees. Actually, it seemed like ‘Ohi’a trees were growing near everything! They were everywhere in Hawaii. A member of the Myrtle family, they and their cousins are some of the most widespread flowering plants in the Pacific. Lightweight seeds are easily dispersed on the wind, and despite their small size, they can survive below freezing temperatures and at least 30 days submerged in saltwater. The ‘Ohi’a lehua on Hawaii have evolved into new species, and occur nowhere else in the world.
We spotted them on recent lava flows, often sprouting in cracks like you’d see a jack pine on much older lava on Isle Royale. In poor soil, Ohi’a stay shrubby. As their leaves add to the soil, and other plants move in, eventually the Ohi’a grow to full size trees and are an important component of forests.
Even though we didn’t visit during their season of peak blooming, most of the Ohi’a trees we spotted had at least a few flowers gracing the ends of their twigs. A mass of red stamens makes them look fuzzy. And hiding among those flowers, sipping nectar, are two red birds who match the flowers perfectly! The ‘I’iwi and 'Apapane are two types of Hawaiian Honeycreepers, a group reminiscent of the Galápagos finches. Their ancestors arrived on wings (probably with the help of big storm winds!), but I’ll write more about them later.
On Isle Royale, wind also brought ferns, as well as trees like aspen and birch, and 32 species of orchids with their dust-like seeds. Despite the fact that orchids are adapted for wind dispersal, Hawaii was not so lucky. There are only three native orchids on Hawaii. Several more have escaped from gardens.
One group of critters you may not think of riding the wind to new places are spiders. They release little strands of silk, which first rise due to the Earth’s electrical fields and then catch the wind, and balloon away! Over 100 spiders are native to Hawaii. We peeked under hundreds of leaves to spot a famous “Hawaiian happy-face spider” with a cheesy red grin on their abdomen, but only ended up spotting several fog-dappled spider webs.
These webs remind us of how everything is connected. Even the most remote islands in the world are linked by the transporters of wind, wings, waves, and ecological processes like evolution. One benefit of travel is that through finding those connections it helps us appreciate our own home.
Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Our exhibit: “The Northwoods ROCKS!” is open through mid-March. Our Fall Calendar of Events is ready for registration! Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.