Easter Island Wildlife
Easter Island’s fauna is not very abundant, due to its small size and extreme isolation. However, Easter Island animals have had a significant influence on the culture and diet of its inhabitants.
Terrestrial fauna of Easter Island
Easter Island’s fauna, as a consequence of its extreme isolation, is scarce and very poor from the point of view of its diversity, which differentiates it notably from the rest of the Polynesian islands. Among the terrestrial fauna, the following species can be distinguished: mammals, sea birds and reptiles.
There are no native mammals on the island. The most abundant are rodents introduced involuntarily by ships that arrived on the island in the past. The existing species are the ditch rat (Rattus norvegicus), distributed throughout the island; the house rat (Rattus rattus); and the common vole (Mus musculus), which lives in the vicinity of the houses.
In ancient times there was the kio’e or Polynesian mouse (Rattus exulans), a rodent brought by the first Polynesian settlers, but today it is extinct. DNA studies of the ancient bones of this species found on Easter Island reveal that it is related to the mice of Mangareva and the Marquesas Islands, suggesting that they must have come from one of these two places.
Among the domestic animals introduced by the missionaries in the 19th century are sheep, goats and cows. It is worth mentioning the huge population of horses (about 6,000) that already outnumber people and roam free on the island.
In spite of the beauty of observing them in freedom (although all of them have owners), many times they are a danger for drivers, since they cross the roads and highways at will, just as they circulate without control among the archaeological remains.
The only existing terrestrial reptiles are two small species distributed relatively abundantly throughout the island. They probably arrived to Rapa Nui accidentally, transported on wood carried by the ocean currents or the canoes of the first immigrants.
One of them is the white geko (Lepidodactylus lugubris) known locally as moko uru-uru kau, which has nocturnal habits and a wide distribution that includes Panama, India and several islands of the tropical Pacific.
The other species is a small lizard (Ablepharus boutoni poecilopleurus) called moko uri uri, with darker coloration. Unlike the previous one, it has diurnal habits and its presence extends from the Hawaiian Archipelago, Tahiti and Samoa, among others, to some Peruvian and Ecuadorian islands.
It should be said, for the peace of mind of locals and visitors that snakes are not known to exist on the island.
Easter Island Birds
According to the study of some specialists, Rapa Nui had more than 30 species of land and sea birds, making it one of the Polynesian islands with the largest number of birds in prehistoric times. However, many of them have disappeared, some are extinct and others no longer visit the island.
Among the various species of birds that have existed or still live on the island, it is necessary to distinguish between those of purely terrestrial habitat, which were mostly introduced in recent times, and those of marine migratory habits.
Historically, the information recorded on land birds referred only to domestic fowl and almost exclusively to chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus) or moa in the Rapa Nui language, which were introduced by the first Polynesian settlers and were confined in stone henhouses called hare moa. They were and still are highly valued both for their feathers, used as a decorative element in traditional clothing, and for being an important element in their diet.
At some point hens went wild in large numbers, in fact some current specimens still lay blue eggs, and this is considered an original trait. Today hens still have a strong presence on the island and run loose near houses, hotels and archaeological sites.
However, archaeological studies carried out in Anakena have established the existence of at least six types of land birds corresponding to four families, which would have inhabited the island several centuries ago.
On the other hand, within the period between 1888 and 1928, it is estimated that seven land birds were introduced from continental Chile, five of which still live on the island. Currently you can see the sparrow, diuca, Chilean tinamou and Chilean partridge.
There is also an abundance of chimango caracaras, a bird of prey of the falcon family, which was brought to control the rodent population but since it has no predators, it has reproduced considerably. The pigeon (Columba livia) represents a special case since it was introduced in the 1970s.
As an oceanic island, Rapa Nui should have been an obligatory point of visit for the numerous species of seabirds that inhabit the tropical and subtropical Pacific Ocean. However, with the passage of time there has been a gradual decline in the number of seabirds that nested here and have changed the island for other breeding sites, such as the Salas and Gómez islets. Recently some 15 species have been recorded on the island and its nearby waters, and currently 5 nest on the islets or motus and cliffs of the island.
You can contemplate the long glide of the common frigatebird or Makohe (Fregata minor) whose male is easy to distinguish by its striking red crop; the gannet or masked booby or Manukena (Sula dactylatra) that gives its name to one of the radio stations of the island and according to the story it sheltered on Anakena beach (which means cave of the kena bird); and the red-tailed tropicbird or Tavake (Phaeton rubricauda) which is sometimes found in large groups around the Rano Raraku volcano emitting a characteristic screech.
The other two species more difficult to observe are the endangered heraldic petrel or kakapa (Pterodroma arminjoniana), and the Easter shearwater or kuma (Puffinus nativitatis).
It seems that the extinction of land birds and the disappearance of the marine avifauna, is due to the successive changes suffered in the fragile island ecosystem throughout its history caused by natural factors. At the same time, with the arrival of man, much of the vegetation that was still preserved disappeared, along with the terrestrial avifauna, beginning the eradication and disappearance of seabirds.
These were an important element in the ritual practices and ceremonies developed in ancient times, and their arrival and reproduction were closely linked to the local deities, particularly the god Make Make and Haua, who would have brought them from Motu Motiro Hiva (Salas and Gómez islets) according to tradition.
The legend that testifies to this, mentions the successive attempts of introduction carried out by Make Make in diverse points of the south coast of the island, achieving it successfully in Motu Nui, place that was considered as tapu (or taboo) for the old island society. It is in this place where two kinds of terns (Sterna lunata) and (Sterna fuscata), known locally as Manutara, nested until recently and on which the cult and ceremony of the Tangata Manu or Birdman was based in ancient times.
Easter Island marine fauna
Due to the narrow shelf around the island, and the water temperature of 22º C, coral does not grow in sufficient quantity to form protected reefs and lagoons, like those that can be seen in other Polynesian islands such as Hawaii or Fiji. In Rapa Nui, the sea breaks furiously against the coast.
Given the absence of rivers that discharge their sediments and considering that the sea surrounding the island is poor in plankton, the water is so clear and transparent that the average visibility is thirty to fifty meters, which makes the island a paradise for diving enthusiasts.
Read more about Easter Island diving
The local marine fauna includes more than 150 species belonging to 65 different families. Due to Easter Island’s isolation, approximately 25% of the fish are endemic, not found anywhere else in the world.
Many fish are of interest for fishing, such as yellowfin and bluefin tuna, sierra, cod, moray eel, nanue, matahuira, toremo or mahi-mahi. In ancient times, the most prestigious species, such as tuna or kahi, were reserved for the nobility and their capture was prohibited during most of the year.
Other species present are porcupine fish and needle fish, and occasionally various species of sharks appear, but to the peace of mind of fishermen and bathers, no attack has ever been reported.
From time to time, the sea turtle or honu usually appears as an occasional visitor to the island coasts, in its varieties of green turtle (Chelonia mydas japonica) and hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata bissa). They can be seen relatively easily on the coast of Hanga Roa, on the shore of Pea beach and in the port of Hanga Piko. The features that differentiate these two species are found in the head. The hawksbill turtle has a larger number of scales on the top of its head, and its upper jaw is more pointed than the green turtle.
Marine invertebrates, which also have a high level of endemism, are represented by mollusks, crustaceans, echinoderms, actinias and corals. Among them are a type of conch called pure, which is used to make typical island handicrafts, and three species of highly prized lobsters: the ura (Panulirus pascuencis) and the rape rape (Panulirus perlatus and Scyllrides roggeveeni).
Recently, the organization Oceana has made a video showing some of the species that inhabit the waters around Easter Island.
According to the organization’s studies, the island has suffered a worrying decline in fish in recent years, mainly due to overfishing. This scarcity affects both the functioning of the island’s marine ecosystem and the Rapa Nui people whose economy and culture depend on these resources.
Oceana proposes the creation of a Marine Reserve in Hanga Roa Bay, in which fishing is regulated. If accepted by the islanders, the good state of conservation of the corals would greatly facilitate the recovery of local species.