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Hawai'i's technicoloured cloak of extinction

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Hawai'i's technicoloured cloak of extinction

By Matt Rayner
Thursday, 22 June 2017

‘Ahu’ula, Feather Cloak. Hawai’i.  1948.47, 29817.

‘Ahu’ula, Feather Cloak. Hawai’i. 1948.47, 29817.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

In New Zealand we well know the tragic toll that human colonisation can have on wildlife and we have the dubious title of being one of the extinction capitals of the world having lost at least 76 species of birds, three lizards and frogs, one freshwater fish and at least four plants since people first arrived in Aotearoa. However elsewhere in the Pacific others have also experienced wildlife losses whose stories are held in our collections in unusual ways.

Like New Zealand, the Hawaiian Islands were also settled by Polynesian voyagers; although slightly earlier around 1500 years before present. The new Hawaiian's quickly developed a complex hierarchical society dependent on the natural environment for materials. Ahuula, or woven cloaks, were particularly important in Hawaiian society as status symbols and were worn only by alii, or chiefs. An ahuula held in our collections, part of an exchange between the Auckland Museum and the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge in 1948, shows the patterns of red and yellow colours reflected in the garment.

Imperilled and extinct birds from Hawai\u0027i. From left to right, ‘i’iwi (Vestiana coccinea), Kauaiian ‘ō‘ō (Moho braccatus - extinct), apapane (Himatione sanguinea)

Imperilled and extinct birds from Hawai'i. From left to right, ‘i’iwi (Vestiana coccinea), Kauaiian ‘ō‘ō (Moho braccatus - extinct), apapane (Himatione sanguinea)

© Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

These striking colours were obtained through the use of thousands of feathers from small passerine songbirds endemic to Hawaii. Yellow feathers came from birds such as the Hawaiian ōō, a group of four species in the genus Moho, whereas red feathers were taken from species such as the ‘iiwi Vestiana coccinea and ‘apapane Himatione sanguinea. Bird catchers, poe hahai manu, would often catch and release birds after 2-3 of the colourful feathers were plucked. Small bundles of feathers were then tied together and attached to a fibre foundation with each row of feathers overlapping the row below. Due to the difficulty of capture, and small number of feathers obtained from each bird, only those with enough mana could marshal the resources to manufacture such stunning garments.

Unfortunately, as in Aotearoa, the tragic tale of wildlife loss following human arrival was played out in force in Hawaii. Nineteen, mainly larger or flightless species were lost following Polynesian arrival, with approximately 27 species, of mostly smaller birds, winking out of existence following European settlement in early 1800s. Beyond habitat loss, hunting and introduced predators, the accidental introduction of mosquitos to Hawaii in the early 1800s was a critical factor in the extinction of so many small Hawaiian birds. The reason being was that mosquitoes were then able to spread the avian malaria parasite for which most Hawaiian birds had little or no immune defence.

The subsequent losses of small bird species, many existing for centuries in the presence of traditional cloak making bird catchers, have been tragic and very recent. This loss is reflected in our own land vertebrate collection which holds specimens of lost treasures such as the Kauaiian ‘ō‘ō Moho braccatus , abundant when collected 1876 but extinct as a species by 1987), the lesser akialoa Hemignathus obscurus  (collected 1898 extinct as a species by 1940), the kākāwahie Paroreomyza flammea (collected 1907 and last sighted in the 1960s) and the Kauaiian kāmaʻo Myadestes myadestinus (collected 1899, last sighted 1989) and ‘ō‘ū Psittirostra psittacea (collected 1907 and last sighted in the 1980).

Thankfully the feathered ‘iiwi and ‘apapane manage to hold on in Hawaii (although on some islands in rapidly dwindling numbers) but many small birds continue to decline towards extinction with cool high-altitude forests providing the only refuge from avian malaria- carrying mosquitos. Sadly, global warming poses a significant threat to these remnant populations by allowing mosquitos to expand their range further up the mountain sides, so they too may succumb to the scourge of this deadly disease.


  • Post by: Matt Rayner

    Matt Rayner is a conservation biologist who specialises in the study of avian behaviour, ecology and evolution. With a particular interest in the Pacific seabirds, he works on closely with conservation and advocacy groups in Australasia and the Pacific through his role as Curator of Land Vertebrates and as a research associate of the University of Auckland. Read Matt's profile.

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