By Malia Zimmerman | Hawaii Reporter
HONOLULU — Hawaii lawmakers are looking to honor two uniquely Hawaiian creatures — the Hawaiian hoary bat and the Flavobacterium akiainvivens microbe.
Yep, that’s right. Legislators are debating bats and microbes.
The Hawaiian hoary bat, also known by its Hawaiian name Ōpe‘ape‘a, is Hawaii’s lone native land mammal. The tiny creature, which has a 10-inch wingspan and a body that weighs under an ounce, survived thousands of years in the islands before being placed on the endangered species list because there are only about 1,000 remaining.
After migrating from North America, the very existence of the bat in the middle of the Pacific is considered by scientists as “perhaps among the most spectacular over-water colonization events in mammalian history.”
The bat caught the attention of Sen. Sam Slom, who may identify with the rare creature since he is the only Republican in the 25-member state Senate. Slom’s staff launched a campaign in 2011 in support of his efforts to designate the bat as the official state land mammal, and created T-shirts and a website in the bats’ honor.
Senate Bill 775 passed Sen. Glenn Wakai’s Technology and the Arts Committee with unanimous support from scientists and environmentalists.
William Aila Jr., chairman of the Department of Land and Natural Resources , said “The Hawaiian hoary bat would benefit from the recognition and well represent our unique island home.” He was one of several people who submitted testimony in support of the bat measure.
The Conservation Council for Hawaii, Bat Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, Humane Society of the US-Hawaii, Hawaii Kai Hui and several other people testified in favor of the bill.
Bats recognized for being ‘cool’
Mylea Bayless, a spokesperson for Bat Conservation International, said learning about the unique ecology of the Hawaiian hoary bat and conserving its habitat will be more likely if the residents feel a kinship with the unique bat and take pride in its protection.
“State land mammal designation would highlight this unique and valuable creature to the public. We believe that bat conservation works best when bats are understood and appreciated by the local communities in which they live,” Bayless said.
The bat designation could also have a positive economic impact, Bayless said.
“Texas designated the Mexican free-tailed bat as official state flying mammal in 1995, and Texas Parks and Wildlife has called Mexican free-tailed bats our state’s ‘Billion Dollar Bats’ because of the economic impact that bats have — from pest control to ecotourism dollars.”
Mark Fox, director of external affairs for the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, called the Hawaiian hoary bat “truly a wonder.”
“It can fly. It can echolocate. It has the ability to enter torpor or a limited hibernation and to cope with periods of food such as insect shortages or inclement weather,” Fox said.
Fox said the bats’ ancestors arrived from continental America crossing more the 2,500 miles of the Pacific Ocean, which D. H. Johnson, former curator of mammals for the Smithsonian Institution, identified as “probably the most remarkable mammalian flight of all time.”
Twelve-year-old Joshua Kresnak submitted testimony declaring the bat “a really cool animal” and said designating the bat as Hawaii’s land mammal “would show our aloha for our native wildlife because the Hawaiian hoary bat is now an endangered species.”
Partisan politics may keep bat from fame
The seemingly uncontroversial bill that received no opposition in committee ran into trouble Tuesday on third reading before the Senate when Sen. Clayton Hee, chairman of the Judiciary and Labor Committee, headed up a behind-closed-door effort to get the bat bill killed.
Reportedly in the Democratic caucus, Hee said he did not want the bill introduced by a Republican, who is not native Hawaiian, to move forward.
The bill did pass the Senate on Tuesday, but Hee was able to secure eight votes in opposition, including members of the Hawaiian Affairs Committee that supported the bill in committee last year. None of the senators explained in public why they opposed the bill.
The bat will have another challenge in the House, since so many Democrat Senators opposed its place in history.
Microbe significant, unique in Hawaii
In the state House, it isn’t a bat, but a microbe that has the attention of lawmakers. HB 293 HD1 “establishes and designates flavobacterium akiainvivens as the official microbe of the State.”
The state already recognized specific flowers, plants, animals, sports and colors of the eight Hawaiian Islands, but there is no official state microbe, even though they are the most abundant organisms in Hawaii.
Scientists and students joined in 2012 to settle on flavobacterium akiainvivens as the microbe of choice, author Rep. James Tokioka said in his bill. He notes the microbe originates lives on wikstroemia oahuensis, which also goes by its Hawaiian name akia, meaning “endemic shrub.”
Microbe discovered by high school student
Iolani School student Iris Kuo, in collaboration with Stuart Donachie and Jimmy Saw of the University of Hawaii at Manoa‘s department of microbiology; Durrell Kapan and Kenneth Kaneshiro of the Center for Conservation and Research Training; and Stephanie Christensen of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s department of oceanography, discovered and named the bacterium during her six week internship.
Donachie, who testified at the Legislature and has a special fondness for the microbe since it was discovered in his lab, said no other state has an official microbe.
“Hawaii can lead the way, he said. “Flavobacterium akiainvivens was discovered in Hawaii. It can be the first state microbe in the nation.”
Flavobacterium akiainvivens was detected only in Hawaii, Donachie said, noting the species was grown from decaying wikstroemia or ‘akia’, a flowering shrub endemic to Hawaii. The culture produces an enzyme that breaks down the plant cell wall, Donachie said, which is likely involved in providing nutrients for forests.
“Its discovery by a local high school student during a science fair project is an excellent and motivational example of what students can discover and achieve,” Donachie said.
Ken Kaneshiro, director for Conservation Research and Training at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, has been involved in researching biology for 50 years in the islands and has first- hand knowledge of the local discovery.
Testifying in support of the bill, he said the biological diversity of microorganisms, potentially thousands of species that could be found in the native Hawaiian ecosystem, “is a gold mine waiting to be discovered.”
The bat and microbe designations are backed by environmentalists, scientists and students from across the country, but it will be politicians and their politics that decide whether these unique Hawaii entities will get the attention so many say is richly deserved.
Contact Malia Zimmerman at Malia@hawaiireporter.com