Meet the Haleakala Silversword, otherwise known as ‘ahinahina, and take a close look, because you may not get a chance to see this beautiful and unique plant in nature for much longer. Found in stunning Haleakala National Park on the Hawaiian island of Maui, this plant has been wowing tourists for decades, and no wonder, with its silvery, sword-like leaves and stunning profuse array of flowers. Those leaves, by the way, are lined in fine hairs to reflect sunlight and insulate the plant from temperature extremes. It can take up to 90 years for this plant to muster up the will to flower, and once it does, it dies; as of 1992, it’s been a protected species, due to concerns about tourists collecting the flowers and damaging the plants.
As is common with plants endemic to an area, the Haleakala Silversword isn’t just pretty to look at. It’s also part of an intricate ecosystem, providing food, habitat, shelter and even hunting grounds for various native species that depend on its existence. Like many plants, it is part of a very complex web of life that is also immensely fragile, as researchers are discovering as a result of a 20-year survey of silversword populations.
The survey was initiated to take a look at the effect of introduced species on the Haleakala Silversword. Introduced species are a particular concern in Hawaii, where the remote island location has permitted the evolution of a number of truly unique and potentially very fragile plant and animal species. Researchers were concerned about the numbers of plants, and they established a set of managed plots for further study. What they found shocked them; the Haleakala Silversword was clearly in decline, and the culprit was climate change.
These plants rely on stable climate conditions, and they’re perfectly suited to the unique environment of their Hawaiian home. When air temperatures started climbing and rainfall started dropping, they began to suffer. At first, the dwindling numbers weren’t readily obvious, but when scientists started collating their data, they realized what was really going on, and had to face the fact that this amazing plant might disappear right in front of them. Extinction events often occur quietly, and can be difficult to track as they occur, but in this case, researchers had the advantage of years of data and a very visible population to study.
The fate of the Haleakala Silversword highlights the dangers posed by climate change, as well as the need for detailed and thoughtful scientific research. It also puts the focus on the risks posed by climate change to fragile species evolved to survive in very unique and limited environments; the Haleakala Silversword doesn’t thrive outside its home range, and is unlikely to take well to cultivation in another location. Once it’s gone, it will be gone forever, and as it disappears, it may take the species that depend on it for survival along with it.
In the search for illustrations of climate change and the need for urgent action, the Haleakala Silversword could become a critical symbol. Let’s hope, for the sake of this plant, those that live with it and the people who love it, that it doesn’t become a tragic cautionary tale.
Photo credit: David Fulmer