Hawaii has long been synonymous with paradise for humans in search of sun, sand, surf and hula-dancing. But for hundreds of thousands of years, this volcanic archipelago in the Pacific has also been an Eden for its plant and animal inhabitants.
“Hawaii has a huge number of species that are unique,” says Professor Richard Fortey, who explains how islands can act as evolution laboratories in his new BBC4 series Nature’s Wonderlands.
“For example, there are species of birds called honeycreepers that are found nowhere else. They’ve evolved all sorts of fantastic shapes and sizes, some of them brilliantly coloured – orange, scarlet, yellow. Some of them have evolved alongside special flowers that only they can feed on and pollinate. So you have a honeycreeper with a very long curved bill that’s adapted to fit inside a very long curved flower.
“That’s what scientists call co-evolution – two organisms evolving in harmony together. Hawaii was an island paradise in which animals and plants were evolving together to produce species that are found nowhere else in the world.”
Scarlet Hawaiian honeycreeper
In the documentary, Fortey also inspects some astonishing caterpillars. “We all know that caterpillars march around our cabbages eating the leaves because they’re vegetarians. Not so on Hawaii: a whole group of caterpillars have evolved to become predators. They grab passing flies and stuff them into their jaws. In other words, they’ve invented a completely new ecological habit that you see nowhere else in the world. So this is evolution at all scales, from a tiny fly to a large tree.”
The islands of Hawaii are just 0.2 per cent of the size of the United States, yet are home to nearly 15 per cent of the country’s species. Why? Because they’re so remote. “It’s very difficult to reach Hawaii but anything that does over the last million years or so has a field day, an open space into which it can evolve or adapt,” explains Fortey.
“So a lot of the diversity in Hawaii is the result of a very few founder species – things that arrive on the wind perhaps or are maybe carried on a floating log – that have fetched up on a virgin island with a huge range of possibilities.”
Richard Fortey befriends a lizard
The diversity of the climate is also a major factor. “Hawaii’s not just a little island. It goes all the way from sea level to thousands of feet high, so there are different kinds of habitats – much cooler and wetter in some parts and drier in others. So it’s a sort of test case for evolution.”
Fortey’s top tip is to head to Hawaii Volcanoes national park, which boasts both the world’s biggest and most active volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kilauea. When he first visited a decade ago, you could walk right up to the slowly erupting lava. That’s no longer allowed – but you can still get pretty close and walk through a lava tube.
“As the lava flows, the crust – the top of it – cools and solidifies. But the lava continues to flow inside this crust and it leaves behind a hollow tube. You can go inside these tubes and see some extraordinary sights. There are even insects that have evolved to live inside them. So it’s a wonderful example of the way that life can adapt to almost any circumstance you can imagine.”
Inside a lava tube; Volcanoes national park, Hawaii
Fortey also recommends exploring the lush tropical rainforest while you’re there, and keeping a keen eye out for unusual inhabitants. Finally, when the sun goes down, don’t forget to look up: Hawaii is also one of the best places in the world for stargazing.
Nature’s Wonderlands: Islands of Evolution begins on Monday 18th January on BBC4 at 9pm. Subsequent episodes will focus on Madagascar and Madeira.
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