Let’s talk terminology. As we have mentioned in previous blogs, Hawai´i’s geographic isolation has produced some very unique life that is found nowhere else on the planet. When visiting some of the areas where you can see this unique diversity, you will probably hear or read the words “indigenous” and “endemic” when describing the local plant and animal life. Distinction between the two is often not pointed out and it can seem that the words are interchangeable. Here we will clear this up for you and you can impress your fellow travelers when you can call a tour guide’s b.s.
“Indigenous” and “Endemic” both refer to an organism that is unique, or native, to a particular area. Indigenous refers to an organism that arrived to Hawai´i on its own. That is, without the help of humans. A seed that was blown here on the wind, an animal that flew or swam here, or something that survived the epic float across the ocean and established itself here would be an indigenous organism. This also means that something that is indigenous can be found elsewhere. The oceangoing birds of Hawaii arrived here to nest on their own but they are also found throughout the Pacific Ocean.
Endemic organisms are those that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Something that is endemic arrived to the Hawaiian Islands on its own, became established and has been here so long that it is uniquely adapted to the environment. Some of the plants and birds of Hawai´i exhibit this the best such as the ´Ohi´a lehua trees and various honeycreeper birds. The trees have adapted to the toxic environment near Hawai´i’s active volcanos and their bright red flowers and their nectar are favored by a number of the endemic birds.
The terms used to describe the various flora and fauna of Hawai´i are a result of having so many non-native species become a part of the landscape. Those that care about Hawai´i’s past, present and future hear these terms a lot and those things that can be called endemic are disappearing fast. While visiting, take the opportunity to go and see a native forest, a healthy coral reef or wildlife refuge. You can see and experience things that you are sure to not have back home.