Due to its degree of isolation, the Hawaiian Islands have a fairly distinctive catalog of animals. Though some animals have been brought to the islands by later settlers, Hawaii can boast close to 90 percent of its animals that are “endemic,” that is, unique to the Hawaiian Islands and found in no other part of the world. The rarity of the animals in Hawaii is also their curse; over time, many Hawaiian species have gone extinct, and a number of others remain endangered today.
Hawaii only has two mammals considered to be native to the islands, that is, those which would have been encountered when the first Polynesian settlers arrived on the archipelago between 500 A.D. and 800 A.D. These two creatures are the hoary bat, believed to have arrived in the area via wind currents at an unknown time, and the Hawaiian monk seal.
During the same era of colonization of the islands, researchers believe that the Polynesians found over 60 types of birds, two-thirds of which are still extant. Among these birds that still exist today are the pueo or Hawaiian owl, a bird which is equally comfortable at various altitudes and is distinct from other owls in its tendency to be fairly active in the daytime. Other notable Hawaiian birds include the Nene Goose, Hawaii’s state bird, the aeo, also known as the Hawaiian stilt, and the Hawaiian duck.
During the Polynesian colonization, there were some surprising absences among the animals present in the Hawaiian Islands. In that era, no reptiles or amphibians were found and there was a surprising lack of (arguably, some of the more irritating) insects, such as mosquitoes, fleas, lice and the supposedly ubiquitous cockroaches.
Additions by Settlers
Today, Hawaii has a much wider diversity of animals, particularly mammals, due to the settlers bringing additional species over the years. Many islands have horses, sheep, goats, and wild pigs, some of which are hunted by the populace. The mongoose is another non-native mammal, which has spread to most of the islands, providing one factor in the decline of the bird populations. There are a few species of snake that have appeared on the islands, but there are continual attempts to eradicate them.
Of the 44 species of birds native to Hawaii that are not extinct, 30 are currently endangered, and one, the Hawaiian crow, is threatened. Even the state bird, the Nene, is endangered, and teetered on the edge of extinction before extensive breeding programs brought it to its current level of about 500 birds, most in wildlife preserves on the islands. During the 19th century, the monk seal was hunted almost to extinction. Fortunately, the monk-seal population has seen a recent population jump, which hopefully will lead to steady increases in the future.