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