No discussion of Hawaii’s fossilized bird bones is complete without some mention of the name Dr. Helen James. She is a paleontologist, Curator of Birds at the Smithsonian Institution, and an expert at identifying the bones of extinct Hawaiian birds. Her research focuses on Conservation Paleobiology in island environments. In other words, she studies how organisms on islands evolve and sometimes go extinct, with the hope that this information can help save island species that are currently endangered. Hawaii has a rich fossil record with many extinct species of birds, as well as many extant endangered birds, so the archipelago is a wonderful natural laboratory for her work.
Dr. James has been studying Hawaii’s avian fossils for decades, and is extremely skilled at examining distinctive features on the bones to identify their species. Even though she was here in June to work on an unrelated seabird ecology project, she kindly agreed to take a look at some recently-collected fossil bird bones from Ulupa’u Crater on the Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station. After spending only a couple hours with the bones, she was able to report some significant findings!
One of the larger bones turned out to be a humerus from a raptor, perhaps an ʻio (Hawaiian hawk, Buteo solitarius) that soared over Mokapu Peninsula 400,000 years ago! Although ʻio are now only found on the Big Island, fossil sites on Molokaʻi, Oahu, and Kauaʻi reveal that it was once found throughout the islands.
A smaller, more unassuming bone fragment came from a bird in the Ardeidae family (long-legged, long-necked birds known as herons). This is the first record of a heron at this particular fossil site, so it’s a very important specimen. Today, Hawaii has a native resident heron, the ‘auku’u (Black-crowned night heron, Nycticoarz nycticorax hoactli), and you may have seen this bird fishing along the edges of canals or ponds. It’s unclear if the bone from Ulupa’u Crater is from that species, but it could provide evidence that the ‘auku’u has been here much longer than we thought!
It is always exciting to me to hold these bones and imagine how different Hawaii’s ecosystem was hundreds of thousands of years ago. And it’s a privilege to know someone like Dr. James who can turn tiny bone fragments into a more complete picture of Hawaii’s ancient past.