Are There Snakes in Hawaii?


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Myself . 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Studies show that an invertebrate successfully colonized Hawaii once in every 70,000 years, a plant once in every 100,000 years, and a bird once in every million years.

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The Hawaiian Hotspots. (Image from Tasa Graphics)
The Hawaiian Hotspots. (Image from Tasa Graphics)

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Officially and technically, Hawaii doesn’t have any snakes.

Why?

All Hawaiian Islands are volcanic in origin. Over the past 44 million years, the islands rose up from the ocean floor due to erupting volcanoes. Even today, the youngest island, Hawaii, is still growing from under.

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Hawaii map - Distance from other countries (Source: Padi.com)
Hawaii map – Distance from other countries (Source: Padi.com)

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Hawaii is the most isolated archipelago in the world. The nearest continent, North America, is over 2500 miles (4000 km) away.

The extreme isolation of the Hawaiian archipelago makes it difficult for plants and animals to colonize its islands. The only way for wildlife species to reach the Hawaiian Islands from the rest of the world is to fly or swim across the Pacific Ocean. Chances of surviving the long journey over Pacific by air or sea is virtually small. It would indeed be a miracle to establish a reproducing population on these islands. Since there are no natural predators and diseases in Hawaii, many native plants and animals needed only a few natural defenses to evolve. Studies show that an invertebrate successfully colonized Hawaii once in every 70,000 years, a plant once in every 100,000 years, and a bird once in every million years. This is why it took over millions of years for a very distinct flora and fauna to evolve in Hawaii.

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Map of the Pacific Culture Areas (Author : Kahuroa)
Map of the Pacific Culture Areas (Author : Kahuroa)

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Before humans set foot in the Hawaiian paradise, there were no large animals to eat plants. Harm to the flora and fauna on the islands began about 1500 years ago when settlers started arriving from Polynesia. Mammals such as pigs, dogs, goats and plants brought by them literally devastated many native ecosystems.

It is illegal to own snakes or transport snakes of any kind to the Hawaiian islands. Anyone possessing a pet snake has to face jail up to 3 years and $200,000 in fines. In Hawaii there no natural predators for snakes and large lizards, therefore, if allowed, could pose a threat to Hawaii’s ecosystem by competing with native animals for food and habitat. Some snake species prey on birds and their eggs, and hence could pose a threat to endangered native birds.

Blind Snakes

Hawaii doesn’t officially have snakes. However, there is one snake that does live in Hawaii, the Blind Snake (Ramphotyphlops hatmaliyeb) likely an import from the Caroline Islands in Micronesia, an area north of the equator and far west of Hawaii.

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Addison Wynn, a herpetologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History who studies the blind snakes on the Caroline Islands says:

They eat termites and small ants, and there are about 240 or so known species in the world. They spend their lives burrowing so their head is blunt and pointed to push their way through the soil. Their rudimentary eyes can only differentiate between light and dark and exist as pigment spots underneath scales on their head.

These new species extend the known range of blind snakes some 2,000 kilometers out into the Pacific Ocean, into areas where we didn’t know they occurred or could ever occur. We just didn’t expect to find blind snakes out there (Caroline Islands) in the middle of the ocean.

Some other studies that the blind snakes found in Hawaii could have come there from far off the Philippines, about 5300 miles (8530 km) away.

So, other than the blind snakes, it is widely assumed that there are no snakes in Hawaii. Sadly, this is not true. According to a few reports, people have seen some snakes in Hawaii.

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Ornate Tree Snake

The Ornate Tree Snake captured at Hickam Hickam Air Force Base. (Photo by Dr. Allen Allison, Bishop Museum
The Ornate Tree Snake captured at Hickam Hickam Air Force Base. (Photo by Dr. Allen Allison, Bishop Museum)

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On May 23, 2013, military personnel at the Hickam Air Force Base captured a foot-long mildly venomous Ornate Tree Snake (Chrysopelea ornate) in a maintenance bay near the airfield.

Since the Ornate Tree Snakes are able to spring from tree to tree, they are also known as ornate flying tree snakes. These snakes are native to South East Asia and related to the brown tree snakes which have devastated the ecosystem in Guam by virtually wiping out the native forest birds. Their diet consists of lizards, mice, bats and birds.

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Boa Constrictor 

This was a snake found ran over on the mainland. (Photo: National Parks Service)
This was the five-foot long boa constrictor found run over on Pali Highway (Photo: National Parks Service)

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On September 22, 2013, a motorist ran over a five-foot long Boa Constrictor on the Pali Highway. Several inspectors of Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA) went directly to the area where the snake was found. However, they did not find evidence of any other snakes. Russell S. Kokubun, chairperson of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture said:

Any snake found in the wild in Hawaii is of serious concern. Boa constrictors may grow up to 12 feet, which is particularly troubling for nearby residents and for the environment.”

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Rainbow Boa Constrictor 

A non-venomous rainbow boa constrictor
A non-venomous rainbow boa constrictor

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At about 7 am on November 5, 2013, Victor Palmeri, found a live two-and-a-half foot long non-venomous Rainbow Boa Constrictor on the Nuuanu Avenue sidewalk fronting the Kukui Plaza condominium. Native to Central and South America, rainbow boas can grow up to six feet long. Rainbow boas are known for their attractive iridescent sheen on their scales in the sunlight. Their diet consists of rodents, lizards, aquatic animals, and birds.

It is not known at this time how these snakes found their way to Hawaii.

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