State takes steps to protect rare, endemic butterfly, snail

Kamehameha butterfly (Photo: DLNR)

The state is taking steps to grow the population of two endemic species in Hawaii: the Kamehameha butterfly and a rare Hawaiian tree snail (Achatinella lila).

The Department of Land and Natural Resources says both face extinction due to the introduction of invasive species and the destruction of their natural habitat.

So officials are trying to capture them, breed them in captivity, and then reintroduce them into the wild, especially in areas where traditional habitats have been restored.

As part of the Pulelehua Project, researchers also comb through remote forest reserves, mapping out and counting current populations of butterflies and caterpillars.

“Unfortunately, because of the effects of introduced predators and habitat destruction, the butterfly has only been able to survive in patches of habitat, mostly in higher elevation areas and in the backs of valleys that have not been disturbed,” said Cynthia King, an entomologist with the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW). “We don’t have any native terrestrial reptiles, we don’t have any native amphibians, so the insects and arthropods in general make up such a huge percentage of the biodiversity which is found only in Hawaii. If an endemic creature like this butterfly goes extinct here, it’s extinct everywhere.”

In the northern Koolau range, a team of six reintroduced 50 Achatinella lila in an attempt to establish a second wild population in a protected, predator-proof enclosure.

“These snails are fourth- and fifth-generation snails from the founder population of seven adult snails, first brought into a lab in 1997,” said David Sischo, snail extinction prevention program coordinator. “This was the first time we’ve successfully reintroduced a tree snail from a completely captive population.”

Officials say these and other endemic creatures are critical to the overall integrity and health of Hawaii’s unique ecology and ecosystems.

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