Lāʻau & Holoholona
Haiamū ka manu i ka pua o ka māmane.
The birds gather about the māmane blossom.
— ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #408

Did you know that humans weren’t Hawai‘i’s first inhabitants? There were plants, animals, and insects here long before us. And they had quality time to evolve and change in Hawai‘i’s environment, resulting in some unique and interesting adaptations. Let’s take a trip from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the sea to meet some of Hawai‘i’s rare and unusual plants and animals.

What kinds of lāʻau and holoholona live in the various regions?

There are many lā‘au (plants) and holoholona (animals) that make Hawai‘i their home. Fish and limu fill coral reefs. Birds and insects hide in the rainforests. Flightless insects live on windy mountain peaks. The ‘āina (land) and kai (ocean) are alive, filled with millions of living things!

Long ago, kānaka (people of Hawai‘i) designated different environmental regions from the mountain peak to the deep sea. Different kinds of plant growth often marked different regions. Some regions had limited access and were reserved for the gods. This helped prevent overharvesting of plants and animals.

Forests and oceans are a food source for people. Trees have seeds to help restore the forest. The ocean has limu, which, if collected properly, will grow keiki. Seeds also are food sources for birds, insects, animals, and kānaka. Plants from the land and sea are used for medicine and spiritual connection to the gods. They are used for hula adornments, housing, clothing, dyes, and many other things.

Where is the kuahiwi, and who lives there?

Kuahiwi means mountaintop. This is a very sacred area. The only voice that is heard here is the sound of the wind. With strong winds and extreme climates (sometimes very hot and sometimes very cold), life on the kuahiwi is difficult. Very few plants and animals can live here.

[Wēkiu bug] Photo by Karl Magnacca, available under a Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.One insect that has adapted to this environment is called the wēkiu bug. He lives on the snowy mountaintop of Maunakea. He has a special substance in his blood. It’s like a liquid antifreeze, and it prevents the bug’s blood from hardening.

The wēkiu bug survives by eating other dead insects. These insects are carried up the slope by wind and caught in the rocks. The wēkiu searches under the rocks and eats the dead insects it finds. He has sharp mouthparts. This helps him to make a hole in the dead insect. He can then suck out the body juices of his prey. Just like a smoothie made of bug guts! The wēkiu bug is endemic to Hawai‘i Island, meaning he is found there and nowhere else in the entire world!

Where is the kualono, and who lives there?

The kualono area is near the top of the mountain. Very few plants and animals live here. The ‘a‘ali‘i is one shrub found in this area. It can withstand the strong winds and harsh conditions found at that altitude. The māmane and naio are strong trees that can survive on the kualono. The flower of the māmane was special to the ali‘i (chief). Runners were sent by the ali‘i to fetch the māmane flower. It has a special shape and color favored by the ali‘i.

[Palila] Photo by Jack Jeffrey, USGS. Public domain.Māmane trees are endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. The māmane tree has a special feature. Its leaves fold together during hot, dry weather. This helps the māmane hold moisture. Māmane trees are also home to the palila bird. The palila likes to feed on the māmane pod. He has a hard beak just right for opening the māmane pod. The seed of the māmane is poisonous. But the palila bird eats just enough so he won’t become sick. The palila is endemic to Hawai‘i Island, just like the wēkiu bug. He is also endangered, meaning that his species is in danger of dying off completely in the near future.

Where is the wao maʻukele, and who lives there?

The wao ma‘ukele is a region where the ‘āina is wet and soggy. The main trees that live in this area are the koa and ‘ōhi‘a. In the past, ali‘i set kapu (restrictions) on these areas. These kapu limited access to the wao ma‘ukele, so kānaka would rarely enter this wao. If trees were needed to build canoes, they were harvested in a lower region. It was understood that the forest needed time to regenerate and flourish.

[Peʻepeʻe maka ʻole] Photo by Gordon Smith. Courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.Some wao ma‘ukele have caves. On Kaua‘i, caves and old lava tubes can be home to a very unique and endangered insect called the pe‘epe‘e maka ‘ole, the Kaua‘i wolf spider. Though wolf spiders are generally known for their excellent eyesight, this spider has adapted so well to his dark environment that he has lost his eyes. But instead of weaving a web to catch his prey, this spider uses his long legs to chase and hunt them. How does he find his prey in the dark? He has special sensors on his front legs that allow him to smell and taste.

Sometimes the pe‘epe‘e maka ‘ole is not speedy enough. In this case, he releases his web for the insect to trip over. Then he can easily trap his prey.

Where is the wao akua, and who lives there?

The wao akua is where the gods live and the rain forest begins. Kānaka rarely went into this area either. They went to the wao akua only if no other large forest trees could be found. Trees harvested from this area were considered sacred. Kāhuna (priests) made sure that offerings were made to the gods before a harvest. Many different kinds of trees live in the wao akua. Forest trees such as ‘ōhi‘a, hame, alani, kōlea, and loulu grow wild. Tree snails and native birds also live among the forest trees in the wao akua.

This sacred area was kapu to most kānaka. Those who were allowed to enter went with good intentions, and they had to offer pule (prayers) asking for permission to enter.

[Mamo] Artwork by John Gerrard Keulemans. Public domain.The kia manu (bird catcher) was one of few who could regularly enter the wao akua. He entered the forest silently and with great reverence. He would sit and listen carefully and observe every movement of the birds as they flitted from tree to tree. With great care, he would smear a sticky ‘ulu (breadfruit) sap onto a branch that he thought the bird would land on, and then he would wait. The bird would light onto the tree limb to sip the nectar of a flower, and get stuck. The kia manu would gently remove a few feathers from the bird and release it, leaving it unharmed.

The mamo, for example, was a bird whose feathers were used for capes, kāhili (feather pole symbolizing royalty), and lei. These feathers were crafted into adornments for the ali‘i. The rich, golden tail feathers of the mamo were chosen for the ‘ahu ‘ula (capes) and the lei hulu (feather lei). The black feathers were selected for mahiole (helmets) of the ali‘i.

Where is the wao kanaka, and who lives there?

The wao kanaka is the region where kānaka live and farm the land. This wao is in the lower regions of the ahupua‘a, just below the wao akua. Different types of wood are harvested for tools, weapons, and canoes. Lā‘au lapa‘au, or medicinal plants, are grown in this area for easy access. Loko i‘a (fishponds) and lo‘i kalo (taro fields) also dot the landscape in and below the wao kanaka region.

[Nēnē] Photo by Forest & Kim Starr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.The nēnē goose lives mostly in the shrubland. But she can be found wandering in the wao kanaka in search of food. The nēnē eats berries and grass seeds. She finds protection in dense vegetation. Over the generations, the nēnē has lost all her webbing between her toes. This adaptation helps her to walk on barren lava and cinder cones.

Where is the kula region, and who lives there?

[Pili grass] Photo by Forest & Kim Starr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.Pili is a grass that grows in the kula plains. It is used mostly for thatching hale (houses). Today hale pili are still being built as in traditional times. Hale pili are used for canoe shelters and meeting houses. The pili grass has a sweet scent. Pili is not plentiful, but in traditional times, it was a preferred material over lā‘ī (ti leaf) or lau hala (pandanus leaf). Other materials can be used for hale building though. Most of the materials are collected from the area that the hale will be built.

[ʻĀkulikuli] Photo by Forest & Kim Starr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.On the coastline lives the ‘ākulikuli plant. It has succulent green leaves. This plant resists wind and salt water. Its leaves contain a special chemical that acts like a natural steroid. Kamehameha used to feed his warriors the ‘ākulikuli plant before going into battle. The plant would increase the warriors’ strength. It would also give them energy to take on their enemies.

Where is the ʻae kai region, and who lives there?

[Aeʻo] Photo by Forest & Kim Starr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.The ‘ae kai area is where the ocean and the land meet. Many species live here. Reef fish and shorebirds visit here. But only a few make this their home. There are a number of invertebrates and seasonal limu that are found here.

The ae‘o, or Hawaiian stilt, likes to visit wetland areas and the ocean shore. He gathers food using his beak. His beak is long and sharp. This makes it easy for him to pierce fish.

The adult ae‘o will nest in wetland areas or mud flats with vegetation. She is very protective of her nest. She will defend it by making loud, piercing calls. Or she will dive to attack the predator. Sometimes the ae‘o will pretend she has a broken wing. She does this to lure intruders away from her nest.


[Puhi Laumilo] Photo by Keoki Stender. Used with permission. The puhi laumilo is a kind of eel. He lives in crevices and rocks near shore and in deeper waters. He grows between three to five feet long. He has a long body and slippery skin.

The puhi laumilo has a strong sense of smell, allowing him to be more active at night. He doesn’t need to eat three meals a day like we do. He can survive a long time on just one meal. This eel is an ‘aumakua (family guardian) for some ‘ohana.

Where is the kai kohola region, and who lives there?

The kai kohola is where coral grows and thrives. Reef fish swim through coral heads. Crevices become hiding places for sea life. It protects them from larger predators. 

[Weke pahulu] Photo by Keoki Stender. Used with permission.

The kai kohola, or reef, is home to many different plants and animals.

One type of fish that lives near the reef is the weke. There are many different types of weke. One kind of weke is called pahulu or weke pahulu. The head of the weke pahulu carries a poison in it. If you eat the head, it can cause you to hallucinate. There are stories about people wandering around the house all night after eating the head of the weke pahulu.

[Weke ʻula] Photo by Keoki Stender. Used with permission.Another kind of weke is the weke ‘ula. It is one of the more popular eating fishes. You can wrap it in lā‘ī and cook it over an open fire. 

Limu (seaweed) also grows on the reef. There are many different kinds of limu. One that is popular is called limu kohu (supreme). This limu was favored among ali‘i.

[Limu kohu] Photo by Keoki Stender. Used with permission.Limu is collected on the reef. The holdfast, or root of the limu, is never removed. Saving the holdfast helps the limu regenerate. You can prepare the limu kohu in many different ways. It is usually pounded and made into a ball about the size of a baseball. You can take bits of it and add to your poke (cubed fish). The flavor is strong, so if you use too much, it will overwhelm the taste of your poke.

Where is the kai uli region in the ocean, and who lives there?

Beyond the reef is the kai uli. If you are standing on shore, it extends out beyond the horizon. This is the deepest part of the ocean. There are many different kinds of deepwater fish and mammals that live here.

One of the largest fish is the manō, or shark. There are forty different kinds of sharks. Some sharks are as small as eight inches in length and others as long as fifty feet. Sharks play an important role in the ocean ecosystem. They keep fish populations down.

[Manō] Photo by Albert kok, available under a Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.Kānaka have always treated manō with respect. Sharks are predators but are also ‘aumākua. There are stories of manō being fed. To honor the family guardian, kānaka would hand-feed their manō. ‘Ulu, kalo, and ‘awa were some of the foods enjoyed by the manō. This practice carried on for generations. It secured protection for family members. It also encouraged proper behavior while in the ocean.

When Captain Cook arrived in the islands, he was greeted by our kūpuna. Thousands were in the bay to welcome the crew. There are accounts from sailors that said that sharks were circling in the bay waters. Once, a manō surfaced, his mouth wide open to chomp down on one of the swimmers. The swimmer noticed the shark. He gave the manō a quick whack on the nose and continued swimming. The shark swam away as if he were a pet who had not behaved properly.

Manō are important to a healthy ocean. They remove sick or injured fish by eating them. This keeps the healthiest fish alive and ready to reproduce.


We’ve met a lot of cool and unique plants and animals. Some of them are endemic, which means that they are so unique that they are found nowhere else in the world! Those endemic species are part of what makes Hawai‘i the special place that it is. Unfortunately, many of those unique species are endangered and could eventually be gone forever. Almost 30 Hawaiian bird species, more than 70 Hawaiian snails and insects, and almost 100 Hawaiian plants are listed as being extinct. Extinct means they are gone forever.

[ʻŌʻō] Artwork by John Gerrard Keulemans. Public domain.The ‘ō‘ō is one such extinct bird. Its beautiful yellow feathers were used in Hawaiian feather work. Some were caught and sold as song birds, which usually resulted in their death, many not even lasting a week. Some may have been hunted with muskets. And most probably succumbed to avian disease introduced by the black rat, domestic pig, and mosquitoes. The Kaua‘i species was last heard in 1987. Pictures of the ‘ō‘ō are the closest most of us will ever come to seeing an ‘ō‘ō. The mamo bird we learned about earlier was last seen in the 1880s. It too is extinct.

As stewards of the ‘āina, we are also stewards of everything on it—plant, animal, insect, and more. And of all the species we should hold most dear, it is those who belong to these islands, that have lived in harmony with our ‘āina since long before we got here. They have no other home to go to. They have adapted their whole way of life—including their bodies—to these particular islands, and to specific environments on these islands.


The Kumulipo genealogy teaches us that these organisms were born here before us. We all come from the same origins, and we are all connected. We cannot survive without plants and animals for air, food, medicine, and a healthy, pono environment. When they disappear, so do we. Here is an excerpt from the Kumulipo:

Hānau ka laumilo noho i kaiBorn is the laumilo that lives seaward
Kia‘i ‘ia e ka milo noho i uka (192–3)Protected by the milo that lives upland
Hānau ka weke noho i kaiBorn is the weke that lives seaward
Kia‘i ‘ia e ka wauke noho i uka (193)Protected by the wauke that lives upland


We recognize the laumilo and the weke in the lines above as ocean creatures discussed earlier. The Kumulipo says that the creatures on land are caretakers of those of the ocean. And it is true. What we do on land affects the ocean. When trees and land are bulldozed, some of the dirt gets washed away by rain into streams that empty into the ocean. The dirt covers the coral, and without enough sunlight, the coral dies. Without coral, many fish have no food and no home. They too die.

Our world is small, and it will be even smaller if we continue to destroy the natural things around us. Let us be better stewards of our ‘āina and everything on it. As ‘ōiwi, let us stick together and give voice and protection to those without. Let us remember our humble role as caretakers of the ‘āina. Let us undo our mistakes and prevent new ones so that Hawai‘i can return to its more natural state.

‘O ke akua ke komo, ‘a‘oe komo kānakaThe gods are the ones to enter, not humans


The genus bar

Like people, plants and animals have several names. The chart below shows several names of the organisms mentioned earlier. A plant or animal’s scientific name consists of a genus name and then a species name. A genus is a group of living things with common characteristics. A species is a subset of a genus, and its members are even more closely alike.

Inoa Hawai‘iInoa PelekāniaInoa ‘epekema
‘a‘ali‘inone (in soapberry family)Dodonaea spp.
ae‘o stiltHimantopus mexicanus
‘ākulikuli shoreline purslaneSesuvium portulacastrum
pe‘epe‘e maka‘oleKaua‘i wolf spider Adelocosa anops
limu kohu none (a type of red algae)Asparagopsis taxiformis
māmane none (in pea and bean family)Sophora chrysophylla
mamo none (a finch in the Hawaiian
honeycreeper subfamily)
Drepanis pacifica
naiofalse sandalwoodMyoporum sandwicense
nēnē Hawaiian gooseNesochen sandvicensis
palila none (finch-billed species of
Hawaiian honeycreeper)
Psittirostra bailleui, P. kona
pili tussock grassHeteropogon contortus
puhi laumilo undulated morayGymnothorax undulata
weke pahulu bandtail goatfishUpeneus arge
weke ‘ula yellowfin goatfishMulloidichthys vanicolensis
wēkiuwēkiu bug Nysius wekiuicola