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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bird fossils found in Kalaeloa

By David Waite
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Recent coastal habitat restoration work at the Pearl Harbor Wildlife Refuge-Kalaeloa Unit has uncovered many fossilized bird bones, including those of several extinct species.

J. HIROMASA | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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To find out more about this and other environmental projects, the public is invited to visit the Hawai‘i Conservation Conference at the Hawaiçi Convention Center from noon to 9 p.m. tomorrow.

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Workers restoring wildlife habitat areas on land that was part of the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station have uncovered a number of fossilized bird bones, including those of several extinct species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The unexpected discovery will allow scientists to learn more about the ancient creatures that once were found throughout the Pearl Harbor Wildlife Refuge-Kalaeloa Unit, officials said.

The fossilized bird bones were found while scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were restoring several small tidal pools, known as anchialine pools. Over the past century, the pools had been filled in with rubble, rocks and debris by agricultural, military, residential and commercial activities. The discovery of the fossils provides a more complete picture of the natural bird diversity of a coastal dryland forest on O'ahu.

"These fossils of extinct birds give us a glimpse of an earlier time on O'ahu when the lowlands teemed with native birds, insects, and plants," said Helen James, research zoologist and curator of birds for the Smithsonian Institution.

"To me, it is excellent news that important fossil sites can still be discovered on an island that has experienced so much economic development," James said in a news release about the fossil find. "Lamentably the birds cannot be brought back to life, but by studying their bones we at least gain an appreciation of O'ahu's rich natural heritage."

The fossilized bones discovered so far are those of an extinct hawk, long-legged owl, Hawaiian sea eagle, petrel, two species of crow, Hawaiian finches, Hawaiian honeyeaters, and the moa nalo (a turkey-sized, flightless gooselike duck that was the largest of the native Hawaiian birds). Further work is needed to confirm the identification of each species.

The ages of the fossilized bones are unknown at this time and require further testing using radiocarbon analysis. Avian bones found at similar sites on the 'Ewa Plain date back from 1,000 to 8,000 years ago, the scientists said.

"The discovery of these ancient bird bones, including several species now extinct and maybe even new species not known before, is a great reminder of the truly unique history and wonderful diversity of Hawai'i's birds and the need to protect what is still left," David Ellis, refuge manager for the O'ahu National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said in the news release.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with the Smithsonian Institution and Bishop Museum to properly clean, store, and preserve the bones. The Smithsonian is also providing technical assistance to Bishop Museum and the Fish and Wildlife Service to properly identify and catalog the recently discovered fossils. Interest is high among all involved to continue with a more in-depth paleontological study of the area but further work is dependent on the availability of funding.

The Kalaeloa Unit was added to the National Wild- life Refuge System in 2001 to protect native plants, including two endangered species: the 'akoko and the 'Ewa hina hina. Kalaeloa is an area of ancient raised limestone coral reef and has the last remaining coastal dryland plant communities that were once widespread throughout the 'Ewa Plain.

In January 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began restoring 12 anchialine pools on the Kalaeloa Unit. While removing the debris, Fish and Wildlife Service personnel began to encounter the fossilized bones — some never before seen.