More than 21,000 species call Hawaii home, and more than 8,700 of those are endemic to the islands, which means you won’t find them anywhere else in the world. We’ve already regaled you with tales of Hawaii’s flowers and plants and introduced you to eight species of native Hawaiian birds you’d be lucky to spot.
Now, we’re going to share seven of Hawaii’s exceptional seagoing and land-roaming members of the animal kingdom, starting with one that looks straight out of central casting for Jurassic Park.
The Prehistoric-Looking Jackson’s Chameleon
Even though the Triceros jackson is considered an invasive species, there’s no question that these exotic lizards make for an unforgettable sight in Hawaii. Jackson’s chameleons are originally native to Africa, but they were spotted in Hawaii as early as the ’70s. In addition to looking like mini Triceratops, these chameleons can immediately blend with their surroundings, changing from a vivid bright green to a dark brown in a flash. Although their ability to camouflage makes them challenging to spot, their slow, distinctive style of movement can easily catch your eye. Whereas geckos skitter around quickly, the Jackson’s chameleon’s every step is both studied and deliberate, bringing to mind the movement of a much larger tortoise.
Fun Fact: Only the male Jackson’s chameleon features distinctive horns. Females may have a small horn on the top of their noses, known as a “rostral horn.”
The Rare but Rebounding Hawaiian Monk Seal
Hawaiians call monk seals iIlio holo i ka uaua, which translates to “dog that runs in rough seas” or simply iliokai: seadog. This species of seal is among the rarest on earth. At one point, only a few hundred remained, although their numbers have rebounded to an estimated population of around 1300. Along with the hoary bat, Hawaiian monk seals are one of only two endemic mammals to the Hawaiian islands. If you happen to spot one sunning itself onshore, count yourself fortunate—and admire from a distance. Hawaiian law dictates that people must stay at least 100 feet away from monk seals in order to allow these rare creatures to continue to flourish.
Fun Fact: The Hawaiian monk seal is one of two monk seal species left in the world. Its cousin, the Mediterranean monk seal, is critically endangered. The other known species, the Caribbean monk seal, is unfortunately extinct.
The Sociable Axis Deer
If you’ve ever wondered why venison is a specialty of several of the restaurants of Lanai, look no further than the island’s axis deer population. Although this species finds its origins in Asia, the axis deer made its way to the islands when visiting officials from Hong Kong gifted several to King Kamehameha V in 1867. They were subsequently introduced on Molokai, Lanai, and Maui.
Unlike other varieties of deer, the axis keep their spots into their adult life, as noted in their vernacular name: chital. “Chital” shares etymological origins with the word “cheetah,” both of which come from a Sanskrit root means “spotted.” Axis deer are considered sociable animals since they like to congregate in herds as large as 20.ix Because they have no natural predators, it’s estimated that the population of axis deer on Maui grows by 25% every year!
Fun Fact: Because they were never formally introduced to the Big Island, residents were surprised when they first started spotting them on the island. Although no one is quite sure how the deer made the journey, some suspect they were airlifted in by helicopter.
The Majestic Manta Ray
When you head out for a snorkel or a dive in the waters surrounding the Hawaiian islands, keep your eyes out for manta rays. These gentle giants are the largest type of stingray, and they can reach wingspans of 14 feet (or more)! If you’ve decided that swimming with manta rays is a must-do, head on over to the Big Island and do a night dive or snorkel with one of the operators on the Kona coast. They’ll take you to one of several spots where mantas gather to feed at night, and you can observe their acrobatics as they swoop and soar to collect their nightly dinner.
Fun Fact: When it comes to brain-to-body ratios, manta rays have the largest of all cold-blooded fish. In fact, they’re intelligent enough to make mental maps of their environment and return to the same spot again and again.
The (Formerly Domestic) Feral Pig
If you’re hiking in Hawaii and you spot a patch of land that looks like it’s been churned up by an army of rakes, you’re likely looking at the handiwork of Hawaii’s feral pigs. Contrary to popular belief, pig hunting wasn’t necessarily a common practice for ancient Hawaiians. Pigs were originally brought to the Hawaiian islands by the ancient Polynesians, but they largely kept them as domesticated animals. European arrivals introduced new species of pigs who interbred with the Polynesian pigs. Encouraged by the introduction of food sources like mango and guava, they roamed further from their homesteads and kicked off the feral pig population you’ll see in the islands today.
Since that time, Hawaii residents adapted European and western pig hunting practices, passing the tradition down through generations. Pigs retain an important cultural position in today’s Hawaiian society, most often as the star of the central dish for Hawaiian luau celebrations: kalua pig.
Fun Fact: You can often spot feral pigs crossing more remote hiking trails in Hawaii. However, if you see a feral pig with a piglet, give both of them wide berth, as mothers can become fiercely protective of their young.
The Adaptable and Omnipresent Wild Chicken
While we’re on the topic of domesticated animals turned feral, how could we skip Hawaii’s wild chickens? Although they often occupy less-than-glamorous locations—like parking lots and dumpsters—one group of scientists found them interesting enough to study them. Kauai, in particular, has a huge population of wild chickens.
Many blame the winds of Hurricanes Iwa (1982) and Iniki (1992), which destroyed chicken coops and released domesticated populations. However, using fossil evidence from the earliest chicken arrivals to the Hawaiian islands—these birds came along with the ancient Polynesians—scientists have delivered a twist on this theory. When the domesticated chickens were released during the hurricanes, they may have mated with descendants of the Polynesians’ chickens, rapidly increasing their numbers and their adaptability to different environments.
Fun Fact: One more theory on Kauai’s abundance of chickens hinges on the mongoose, a famous consumer of bird eggs. The mongoose was never released on Kauai, suggesting the possibility that mongooses have kept the chicken population low on other islands, while they’re left to thrive on Kauai.
Hawaii’s Abundant Natural Wonders
Whether you’re a swimmer, a hiker, an eager listener of ancient Hawaiian mythology, or simply a driver dodging dumpster chickens in the Walmart parking lot, the Hawaiian islands offer natural wonders at every turn. Whether through their exotic appearance, adaptive behavior, fascinating backstory, or cultural significance, each has its own way of offering visitors and residents alike a sense of awe and wonder.
Ready to share your home with these members of the animal kingdom? We’d be happy to help you make the move to Hawaii! With crews and warehouses on all four major islands, we can get you wherever you want to go in the Hawaiian islands: Oahu, Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island. Just reach out to one of our experts to get started with a free quote.
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