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Geology
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park offers the visitor a look at two of the world’s most active volcanoes: Kilauea and Mauna Loa.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park stretches from sea level to Mauna Loa’s summit.  Seven ecological zones exist within Hawaii
Volcanoes National Park.  Each zone consists of distinct plant and animal communities.  Kilauea’s caldera is surrounded by three
zones: rain forest on the east, upland forests and woodlands on the northwest, and mid-elevation woodlands to the south.
More than 4,000 feet high and still growing, Kilauea abuts the southeastern slope of the older and much larger Mauna Loa, or
“Long Mountain.”  Mauna Loa towers some 13,679 feet above the sea, making it the tallest mountain in the world, and the second
tallest in the solar system (Mars has the honor of the highest mountain).  Yes, it’s true!  Measured from its base 18,000 feet below
sea level, Mauna Loa exceeds Mount Everest in height.
Beyond the end of the road to Mauna Loa lies Mauna Loa’s wilderness area, where hikers encounter freezing nights and jagged
lava trails amid volcanic wonders: stark lava twisted into black licorice shapes, cinder cones, gaping pits.
Kilauea, however, provides easy access to a greater variety of scenery and cultural sites.  In fact, it is often called the “drive-in”
volcano.  On the slopes of Kilauea, whose name means “much spewing,” lush green rain forests border barren, recent lava flows.
We’re lucky!
Why?
Because for all its activity, and Kilauea has been continuously active now since 1983, Kilauea is a relatively “safe” volcano, at least
as compared to other active volcanoes.  Not that it hasn’t created a path of devastation!  It has destroyed 181 houses, a visitor
center in the Park as well as important archaeological sites, and its lava flows have enveloped roads and covered the famed
Kalapana Black Sand Beach.
But it is considered “safe” and is the most visited volcano in the world because of the type of volcano it is; it is what is called a
“shield” volcano.  The Hawaiian Islands are all formed by shield volcanoes.  
Eruptions at shield volcanoes are only explosive if water somehow gets into the vent; otherwise, they are characterized by low-
explosive fountaining that forms cinder cones and spatter cones at the vent.  
In other words, what this means is that, in general, shield volcanoes, not being accompanied by pyroclastic material, such as rocks
and gases of up to 1830 degrees Fahrenheit, moving at speeds of over 100-450 miles per hour, are relatively safe for us to
explore!
This does not mean, however, that shield volcanoes never have explosive episodes.  In fact, in 1959, Kilauea I ‘ki caldera, one of
the must-see sights on your visit, erupted violently in fountains 1900 feet tall!  The good news is, however, that it gave plenty of
warning, preceding its violent outburst by swarms of earthquakes beginning three months in advance of its November 14th
eruption.  Speaking of earthquakes, just to let you know, a number of earthquakes occur daily in the Kilauea area.  Most of the
time, these are below the threshold of perception.
The Hawaiian Islands are only part of a long continuous chain of islands that stretches northwest of Kauai 1900 miles to Midway
Island and the Kure atoll and beyond.  The Hawaiian Island chain is one of the largest and most striking features on the surface of
planet Earth.  The chain consists not only of the main Hawaiian Islands and adjacent French Frigate shoals, but also the Emperor
Seamounts, a submarine range that runs northward to the Aleutian subduction zone where it disappears.  This continuous line of
volcanoes represents anomalous lava production and by implication, a zone of excess heat in the underlying mantle.  In the early
1960’s, the term “hotspot” was coined for regions like Hawaii where anomalous heat was recognized, though the origin of such
regions remains a geological mystery.
Molten rock, magma, is somehow, not exactly known how, drawn or pushed up the hotspot to the surface, where it becomes a
“seamount.”  As it grows and finally breaks the surface, it becomes an “island.”  The five volcanoes of the Big Island are sort of
fused together to form what we call Hawaii Island.
These five connected volcanic mountains were built by a lava plume rising from the mantle.  They are:  Mauna Loa, Kilauea,
Mauna Kea, Hualalai, and Kohala.  Kilauea, the world’s largest active volcano, is still rumbling because the island has yet to drift
completely off the hot spot.
Kohala is considered extinct; it has not erupted for 60,000 years.  Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano and last erupted about 4500
years ago.  It will probably erupt again some day.  Hualalai is the third most active volcano in Hawaii, and last erupted in 1801.  It
is expected to erupt again within the next 100 years.
Mauna Loa, the largest mountain on earth, covers 51% of the Big Island.  Since 1850, is has erupted on average every 7-10
years.  It last erupted in 1984.  You can see it is long overdue; it may erupt again at any time.  Mauna Loa probably emerged from
the sea 400,000 years, and has been erupting for 700,000 years.
Kilauea is the star, however.  Beloved and feared as the home of the fire Goddess Pele, Halema’uma’u Crater, the center of
Kilauea volcano, has been the source of countless Hawaiian legends.  Kilauea, the youngster of the Hawaii volcanoes, first erupted
between 300,000 and 600,000 years ago.  That hotspot mentioned earlier is directly underneath Kilauea, perhaps as deep as
2000 miles into the mantle of the planet.  The caldera was the site of nearly continuous activity during the 19th century and the early
part of this century.
Since 1952, Kilauea has erupted 34 times, and since January 1983, eruptive activity has been continuous along the east rift zone.  
Currently, there is a lava lake within Halema’uma’u which rises and falls with the inflation and deflation of the lava beneath its
summit, often exposing its red-hot interior.  
Ecology
Barren rocks in vast ocean waters, thousands of miles from the nearest land.  How did the incredible diversity of life ever
reach Hawaii shores?
Hawaii is 2551 miles from Los Angeles, 3850 miles from Japan, and 5280 miles from the Philippines, but insects and
spiders and the seeds of plants reached the islands by wind or in the digestive tracts of birds or stuck to birds blown far off
course.  Sea currents carried salt-resistant seeds to these far shores, and perhaps some plants and animals floated here
merely by chance, clinging to floating flotsam and jetsam.
More than 90% percent of the native flora and fauna of Hawaii is endemic‚which means found nowhere else on our planet.  
From perhaps 20 original ancestors, the Island’s 100 endemic birds evolved.  Of Hawaii’s native angiosperms (flowering
plants) comprising some 1400 species, more than 96 percent are endemic, the rest are indigenous.  Ten thousand spider
and insect species evolved from 350 to 400 ancestors.  Native ferns comprise about 170 species, with around 65 percent
endemic.  Mosses and liverworts are similar to ferns in these statistics.  The Islands became home to only two endemic
mammals, the Hawaiian monk seal and the hoary bat.
Most of these plants and animals lived together in a delicious harmony of co-
Then humans came.  Predators.
The ancient Hawaiians brought a cornucopia of 26 plants and the pig, the dog, the rat.  They burned the lands along the
seacoasts for their agriculture.  They hunted and exterminated many birds including the flightless giant birds, which some
Hawaiian legends describe as big as a man!  Before Captain Cook arrived, more than 35 endemic Hawaiian land birds had
already become extinct.
But when western man hit these shores, the real destruction of this Garden of Eden began and in earnest.  Not intentionally,
of course.  Cattle, goats, cats, mongooses, and pigs and rats more than twice the size of the Polynesian predators were set
free.  So were diseases.  So were 10,000 alien plants.
The delicate plants and animals of the once Garden of Eden, who had evolved no protection because they needed none,
were gobbled up, trampled upon, exterminated at a rate tragically unbelievable.  This was long before the days of the
science of ecology, and the development in humans of an ecological conscience.  Over 1,000 plants and animals have
disappeared from the Garden since human colonization, and currently Hawaii has 317 threatened and endangered plant
and animal species.  One-third of the US roster of endangered species is Hawaiian species.  One-half, 50%, of native
insects have disappeared forever.
Hawaii is the Extinction Capital of the World.  Over 75% of the United States extinctions have occurred here.  We are
also known as “The Endangered Species Capital of the World” with over 25% of the United States endangered species
located in Hawaii.  Yet, Hawaii which has only 0.2% of the land area in the country!
An amazing array of endemic plants and animals, which occur nowhere else on Earth, call the rainforest home.  Soaring
over forests of koa and ‘ohia, endangered Hawaiian hawks search for prey among exotic vines where spectacular native
tree snails hide.  Forest birds such as the Hawaiian crow and Hawaiian thrush have no other habitat in which to live,
except, tragically, cages.  Ditto for native honeycreepers, birds that have evolved diverse bill structures for feeding on
different plants in mesic and wet forests.  Several marvelous carnivorous caterpillars are endemic to Hawaii.  These
fantastic creatures mimic twigs and snatch prey that mistakenly comes too close; others perch on tree trunks, or wait on
ferns and leaves.  When triggered by touch, these caterpillars snatch their unsuspecting prey.
Saving these unique and precious remaining native species and habitats is now a race against time.
For all our calculations, no one can predict what will happen to Island biodiversity in the future, but perhaps clues can be
found in the fiery nature of Hawaii itself.  Every day, as fresh lava flows into the ocean, new land is formed—land that will,
in time, become new habitat for Hawaiian plants and animals, both native and invasive.  Life is change.  Just as the
geography of Hawaii is always changing, so will the shape of life on these wonderful Islands.
One thing is certain.  Visitors to Hawaii are very blessed to experience this treasure as it is now.
Native species of plants and animals are of two groups, endemic and indigenous.  Endemic species are only found in
Hawaii; they evolved here and are now distinct species from plants and animals elsewhere in the world.  Indigenous
species are found here and elsewhere; they may have evolved here or elsewhere.  Both indigenous and endemic species
arrived without human help.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has among the highest number, 54, of threatened and endangered plants and animals in
the National Park System, mostly due to non-native species.  The National Park Service is working aggressively to
eradicate them.
Kilauea rainforest is unlike the other rainforests in the world in that, instead of many tree species, only one or two
dominate the forest.  The dominate canopy tree here is the beautiful red-blossomed ‘ohi’a lehua, the subject of many
myths and legends of Hawaii.  The second canopy layer is composed of ‘olapa.  Understory trees are kawa’u, kolea,
pilo, olomea, mamaki, and opuhe.  Tree ferns, called hapu’u, the largest ferns in the world, are characteristic of Hawaii
Island rainforests; they occur much less frequently, if at all, on the older islands.
The bio-diversity of Kilauea rainforest occurs in its understory and ground cover.  Ferns are paramount, with many, many
species, ranging from delicate and lacy, some even only one cell thick, to stout-trunked and stiff-textured.  There are
native peperomias, endemic hydrangeas, giant African violet relatives, as well as succulents of the lobelia family.  There
are few vines.
One feature of Hawaii rainforests is the epiphytes, plants that grow on tree trunks and branches of host plants.  These
epiphytes don’t feed off their host plants; they live in harmony.  A great example of a host pant is the hapu’u.  You will
often see myriad numbers of other plants growing on their trunks; these hapu’u are called “nurse logs.”  There is also an
abundance of mosses and liverworts in these rainforests.
Birds that you are likely to see and hear include the ‘oma’o, which has among its calls a “police whistle,” and the
apapane, the beautiful brilliant red bird that flits among the same-colored lehua blossoms.  Frequently you may also see
the kalij pheasant, a non-native bird with a sweet, gurgling cry.
Entire biosystems may have their own speciated plants and animals.  A single cave or pit crater may have a completely
different biosystem from any other on the Island.  A species of spider in one lava cave may be unable to reproduce with
its cousin in a lava tube just a half-mile away.
One creature to avoid is the wild pig.  These guys can get rough if cornered.  Especially a sow with piglets should be
avoided.  Pigs can run fast!
That strange creature that looks like a little locomotive darting across the road or through the forest is a mongoose.  
Brought here to control rats, it has wiped out entire bird populations.  Unfortunately, as it turned out, rats are nocturnal
and mongooses (plural of mongoose!) are diurnal.  They rarely meet.  Unfortunately.
Culture
According to Hawaiian myths, Kilauea’s violent eruptions are caused by Pele, the beautiful, hotheaded
Goddess of Fire, during her frequent fits of temper.  Pele historically was both revered and feared; her
immense power and many adventures figure prominently in ancient Hawaiian songs and chants.  Stamping her
feet, she causes earthquakes.  By digging with the pa’oe, her magic stick, she causes volcanic eruptions and
fiery devastation.
Legend describes the long and bitter quarrel between Pele and her older sister Namakaokahai that led to the
creation of the chain of volcanoes that form the Islands.  Pele was seeking fire, and dug pits in succession on
the islands of Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, and Maui as her sister pursued her from their homeland island far to the
south.  At Maui, however, Namakaokahai finally caught up with her, killed her, and scattered her bones in the
sea.
Pele returned, however, as an eruptive cloud over the still-active volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Here
she dug a pit, the volcanic caldera known as Kilauea, and at last made her home in smoking Halema’uma’u
Crater.  As always, she’s given to anger, and vents her rage by spitting out rivers of hot lava to swallow up
those who displease her.  To placate her ire, islanders toss sacrifices into the crater, including bottles of rum!  
More than once, an advancing flow of lava has stopped just short of a vulnerable village soon after such a
sacrifice.
Go figure!
Stories about Pele are endless.  Local Hawaiians as well as haoles, as “newcomers” to the Islands are called,
give her credence and respect.  You will probably see offerings of ti leaves and flower leis left throughout the
Park for the Madam.  Besides appearing as a beautiful, tempestuous redhead, she is said sometimes to go
about disguised as an old crone, sometimes with a little white dog.  In this guise, she tests mortals’ kindness to
her.
According to King Kalakaua, there was an actual Pele clan.  Driven from Samoa in
How is it that Pele’s home—black, smoky, and virtually barren—is cloaked in the rich greenery of the
voluptuous rainforest?  That’s another well-known story, though there are many versions of it.
It seems that one of those smitten with her beauty was Kamapua’a, the pig demigod who could take many
forms, one of which is the amau fern, one of the most prominent tree ferns of Kilauea, a fern covered with
black, stiff bristles resembling those of a boar.
Kamapua’a got it into his head to woo the Madam by planting the lush green vegetation around her home
while she was sleeping, much as these days a would-be suitor might leave a dozen red roses on his sweetheart’
s doorstep.  Much to his chagrin, when Pele awoke and climbed out of her pit, she was enraged by what she
saw.
She chased Kamapua’a and came close to catching him, so close that she burned his behind.  The story tells us
that the brilliant red amau fern frond, a form of the demigod, standing out in the sea of lush green, is a sign of
the battle between Pele and Kamapua’a.  These vibrant red fronds are called Ehupua’a, meaning “burnt-
singed pig.”
And that is how Halema’uma’u got its name, “house of the amau fern.”
 
 
 
 
Flora and Fauna
The Geology, Ecology, Flora and Fauna, and Culture
of
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
 
Copyright 2012
Volcano Village Hawaii
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