Kaiser’s Campus…5,000 Years Ago

The bell rings, the passing period starts, and it’s time for you to get to your next class. As you walk on the sidewalk, you look around, probably not thinking twice about Kaiser’s campus–and yet, two millennia ago, an extremely biodiverse dryland forest flourished here. Once prominent at low elevations, Hawaii’s dryland forests would have been one of the best ecosystems in the world to study evolution and biodiversity, but today, only remnant patches remain, collectively constituting a mere 10% of what once was. Although Kaiser’s dryland forest is gone, we can still imaginatively explore what must have been a Hawaiian wonderland.

The Forest Floor

Rewind time back to 18 C.E. You don’t feel as if you left the present, albeit there is a massive forest all around you. The reason: there are still chickens everywhere! Or are there? On closer inspection, the chicken-like birds tramping on leaf litter are actually Hawaiian crakes, an umbrella term which refers to five different species of flightless birds. Kaiser’s forest harbors two: Ziegler’s Crake (Porzana ziegleri) and Ralph’s Crake (Porzana ralphorum), the latter of which is tied with a Maui species (Porzana severnsi) as the largest of the Hawaiian crakes. Another flightless bird–the Moa-nalo (Thambetochen xanion)–is also foraging as it consumes ferns using the teeth-like protrusions of its beak. This large bird actually evolved from a species of dabbling duck.

The Understory

Aalii (Dodonaea viscosa)–a hardy shrub that will later be used by the Hawaiians to construct tools and weapons–dominates this layer of the forest. This shrub is resilient to such a high degree that the Hawaiians of Kaʻū, Hawaii Island, will conceive of a proverb that is based on the plant’s physical characteristics: “He ʻaʻaliʻi au, ʻaʻohe makani e hina ai,” or “I am an ʻaʻaliʻi shrub, no wind can push me over.” Amongst the ubiquitous shrubbery, orange-red streaks the air as the Kamehameha butterfly, Hawaii’s state insect, flutters erratically. This species is one of only two native butterflies, the other being the iridescent blue koa butterfly (Udara blackburni). Suddenly, a flash is seen; a koa bug (Coleotichus blackburniae) is busy sucking the juice out of a papery aalii seed capsule. This species of stink bug, whose outer shell appears to be made of shiny jewels, is nearly stinkless (it still emits foul-smelling chemicals as a defense mechanism but at a low potency), probably due to the lack of predators.

Perhaps the strangest critter you may come across is the world’s only carnivorous inchworm belonging to the Eupithecia genus. This inchworm lays in wait for days, resembling a twig as it stays frozen. When an unsuspecting Hawaiian drosophilid (think of a massive fruit fly) contacts the inchworm’s hind trigger hairs…snatch! The moth caterpillar grabs onto the fly with its sharp true legs, locking in the prey item as it begins to munch.

The Canopy

Here is the domain of the Wiliwili tree. As if stained by the sun’s rays, the Wiliwili’s bark is golden, and the trees in this forest are perhaps 500 years old. Atop a beautifully gnarled branch, a Hawaiian eagle watches over the landscape, eyeing potential prey as well as competition: the Oahu Stilt Owl is also on patrol. Various honeycreepers can be heard flying from perch to perch, including the iiwi, which evolved a curved, salmon-colored beak to retrieve nectar from the curved flowers of various Hawaiian lobelia. There is also the Oahu Alauahio, which uses its straight beak to eat insects and spiders. One of these is the Hawaiian happy-face spider, an arachnid that has a happy-face pattern on its cephalothorax.

There are at least 56 species of Hawaiian Honeycreepers currently extant, all evolving from a single flock of Eurasian Rosefinch that somehow traveled over the vast Pacific and ended up in the Hawaiian Islands. By the 21st century, all but 18 will be extinct due to invasive predators, deforestation, and avian malaria.

Where can you go today to experience Kaiser’s dryland forest?

The only place where you can go to get any sense of what Kaiser’s dryland forest must have been like is Kohelepelepe (better known by its pseudonym, Koko Crater), which is not surprising given that it is located in Kaiser High School’s backyard. Besides the well-known tram trail before the bridge, remnant patches of Aalii are still present and are thriving amidst the invasive Haole Koa. If you head on over to Koko Crater Botanical Garden (which is situated inside of Kohelepelepe’s crater) and walk to the Hawaiian Section, you will see an ancient and protected (by the Exceptional Tree Act 105) grove of towering wiliwili trees, some of East Oahu’s last.

By Nicholas Okazaki / Co-editor in chief

Photos by Nicholas Okazaki

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