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Hanging BY A Thread.

Could Hawaii's vanishing species spell the end of paradise?

One morning last April, deep in the Alakai swamp on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, John Sincock and Jim Jacobi heard a sound that no one may ever hear again: a flutelike oh-oh-oh. The two scientists spotted the vocalist--a male Kauai o'o (OH-oh) bird. Sincock, a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had come with Jacobi, a botanist (scientist who studies plants), to take pictures and record the calls of the very last o'o left in the world.

The o'o isn't the only creature vanishing in Hawaii. Of 71 known bird species, 26 have disappeared completely and 31 are endangered--in immediate danger of extinction. Native plants are also in peril: About 120 of 1,000 flowering species have less than 20 individual plants left growing in the wild! Most of these species are victims of a brutal double-whammy: destruction of their native homes or habitats, and a steady onslaught of invader species, plants or animals imported from other countries that prey on native species or out-compete them for food or turf. "Hawaii is the extinction capital of the country," says Paul Cox, director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii.


Many biologist fear that Hawaii could be a grim indicator of the planet's future unless immediate actions are taken to halt mass species destruction. While the devastation is more gradual on Earth's continents than on many islands, scientists fear that half of all life forms on the planet could be extinct within a few thousand years. Even more alarming: "Earth will lose one fourth of all species in the next 30 years," claims Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden. In the world's rainforests, for example, 1 out of every 8 species is already near extinction. This crisis could wipe out more species than the gigantic asteroid strike that may have annihilated the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.


Steve Perlman, a botanists with the National Tropical Botanical Garden, rappels down cliffs and camps on mountaintops, risking his life to salvage rare Hawaiian plants. One place he works, the rugged Limahuli Valley in northwestern Kauai, is cut by deep ravines and plunging waterfalls. It's home to 10 endangered plants species, including the native Hawaiian palm tree and the last two cyanea shrubs in existence. Many plants have been choked out by a weed known as Koster's curse, brought to the islands in the 1940s as an ornamental plant.

On a recent trip there, Perlman found a small, orange fruit hanging on a remaining cyanea--which could be the key to saving the species. He plucked the fruit and delivered it to the Lyon Arboretum in Honolulu, where the seeds can be coaxed to sprout. But Perlman won't be surprised if his "patient" doesn't make it.

Perlman and Ken Wood, another daredevil botanist, have racked up more than 1,000 expeditions over the last decade to collect rare plant specimens or save rare seeds. They hope to use these seeds to restock native habitats one day, but if there's no place to plant them, says Jacobi, "we might as well just snap nice pictures of them."


Paleontologists Helen James and Storrs Olson of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History study fossils of extinct Hawaiian species. They discovered that more than 50 bird species died out between 600 and 1800 A.D. As the Polynesian population grew, farms overtook lowlands, and the pigs and rats brought in by farmers trampled and devoured plants, snails, and other organisms. In the 19th century, an American ship imported two diseases to the islands: malaria, a disease spread by infected mosquitoes, and a bird virus called avian pox. Then residents introduced non-native songbirds and plants, which only further displaced local species.

Environmentalists now battle to save remaining indigenous or native species, such as the endangered `akiapola'au (ah-KEE-ah-polah OW), a yellow songbird. But the success of such efforts depends on whether Hawaiians can stitch together a healthy ecosystem, or environment, from the remaining land. In one scheme, scientists and private citizens are attempting to preserve 4,000 acres on the island of Hawaii by literally fencing them off against alien invader species.

Although this may be a desperate measure, it offers what may be the last hope of survival for the `akiapola'au and many other dwindling species. Scientists hope it's not too late.

RELATED ARTICLE: Endangered Species List

This chart shows the world's endangered and threatened animals and plants as of November 1999. An endangered species is in immediate peril of becoming extinct, while a threatened one is likely to become endangered without protection. Which types of creatures are in greatest peril in the U.S.? Abroad?


Mammals 61 248 8 16 333
Birds 74 178 15 6 273
Reptiles 14 65 22 14 115
Amphibians 9 8 8 1 26
Fishes 69 11 43 0 123
Insects 28 4 9 0 41
Flowering Plants 551 1 137 0 689

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Here are some startling facts about the world's disappearing plants and trees.


This map shows the past and present range of the world's tropical rainforests. People destroy about 149 acres (124 football fields) of rainforests every minute!


Source: World Resources Institute


The chart above shows tropical forest destruction between 1981 and 1990. Most rainforests are found in Latin America, Africa and Asia. In 1999 alone, an estimated 31 million hectares (1 hectare = 2.5 acres) of tropical forests were razed!
Latin America 8.3 Million
Africa 5 Million
Asia 3.6 Million

Total area deforested: 16.9 Million hectares

Source: World Resources Institute, World Resources 1992-93, 1992


This graph shows the percentage of threatened plant species by country and lists the total number of plants at risk in each nation. For example, the U.S. is suffering from catastrophic plant loss: 4,669 plants are at risk--25 percent of the total plant population. What factors threaten plants?
 Total number of
 threatened species

Israel 32
Korea 66
Ethiopia 163
Romania 99
Thailand 385
Egypt 82
Costa Rica 527
Italy 311
Mexico 1,593
India 1,236
Canada 278
Puerto Rico 223
South Africa 2,215
Japan 707
Cuba 888
Australia 2,245
Spain 985
Turkey 1,876
U.S. 4,669


When the first settlers arrived in the U.S., the whole eastern half of the country was covered by lush forest. As the population grew, forests were razed for farms, housing, roads, and other development. Today, only small pockets remain.


Source: U.S. Forest Service

Take Action!


Your class can adopt acres of endangered rainforest. Contact the Nature Conservancy about their Adopt An Acre program.

The Nature Conservancy 4245 N. Fairfax Drive, Ste 100 Arlington, VA 22203-1606
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:species extinction in Hawaii may indicate worldwide trend
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 10, 2000
Previous Article:Can Alaska Heal?
Next Article:The U.S. CENSUS Gets Under Way.

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