Biological Invasions

, 11:1489 | Cite as

Rattus exulans and the catastrophic disappearance of Hawai’i’s native lowland forest

  • J. Stephen AthensEmail author
Invasive Rodents on Islands


Paleoenvironmental and archaeological investigations from the ’Ewa Plain of O’ahu provide insight into the problem of understanding lowland native forest loss in Hawai’i. Data from pollen analysis of a pond core record, avian paleontology, and archeology, document a precipitous decline of the native forest starting before Polynesian settlement on the ’Ewa Plain but after Polynesian colonization of O’ahu. It is hypothesized that rats, introduced by Polynesian colonizers, increased exponentially in the absence of significant predators or competitors, feeding on a largely endemic vegetation that had evolved in the absence of mammalian predators. Rats radiated ahead of human colonizers on O’ahu, eating their way through the vegetation, perhaps before the colonizers had encountered much of the pristine lowland forest into which the rats had radiated. This hypothesis is supported by several observations, including the almost complete absence of extinct or extirpated avian faunal remains in archaeological deposits, the present distribution of endemic vegetation in Hawai’i, rat ecology, population biology, and other evidence.


Prehistoric rats Hawai’i Paleoenvironment Endemic vegetation Forest loss Avian extinctions 



Financial support for these investigations came from the Department of the Navy, Pacific Division, Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Pacific, through planning and environmental compliance contracts with Belt Collins Hawaii (BCH). International Archaeological Research Institute, Inc., served as the BCH subconsultant for archaeological investigations at NASBP. The author is extremely grateful for the support of these institutions and their staffs, and also the very substantive collaboration he enjoyed with his colleagues and their contributions to the results presented herein: H. David Tuggle, Jerome V. Ward, and David J. Welch. The author also thanks the many other people who worked on this project in what was a truly interdisciplinary effort. Finally, he wishes to thank Terry Hunt and Don Drake for their interest in this work and giving him an opportunity to present it at the conference they organized, Rats, Humans and Their Impact on Islands, held at the University of Hawai’i, Honolulu, March 27–31, 2007.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.International Archaeological Research Institute, Inc.HonoluluUSA

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