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Wildlife & Habitat

Frigatebird chick

The low reef island is the crest of an ancient coral reef cap and massive underlying volcano. Beyond the shallow fringing reef and terrace, the slopes of the extinct volcano drop off sharply to the deep floor of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. The equatorial undercurrent deflects off the western flank of Howland, pushing nutrient-rich waters up into the sunlit zone, increasing marine productivity and benefiting many species of marine life. This important phenomenon may be limited only to Howland, Baker, and Jarvis Islands because of their steepness and location on the equator.

  • Birds

    sooty terns 150x118

    Seabirds and shorebirds are the dominant wildlife on land. Thirteen seabird species and nine shorebird species have been observed during the limited trips to Howland Island. The earliest bird surveys at Howland Island took place long after the introduction of Polynesian rats (by 1854), making it difficult to know exactly what bird species were present originally. Cats were introduced during 1935 to 1942, resulting in a further loss of seabird diversity. Polynesian rats were eliminated from the island sometime after 1938, and feral cats were eliminated from the island by 1986. Today the most numerous breeding seabird species at Howland are the lesser frigatebird (Fregata ariel), masked booby (Sula dactylatra), and sooty tern (Onychoprion fuscatus).  

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  • Coral

    Staghorn colonies

    By 2010 a total of 109 species of stony corals had been identified at Howland, including thickets of staghorn, plate, brain, and table corals. The 8 most abundant genera are Acropora, Favia, Fungia, Leptoseris, Montipora, Pavona, Pocillopora, and Porites. Despite a possible massive coral kill at Howland, related to the 1997-98 global bleaching event, live coral coverage is high, averaging more than 50 percent on the terrace and on some portions of bottom habitat. Because Howland is uninhabited by humans many of the anthropogenic stressors that afflict corals in other parts of the world are absent here resulting in a spectacular reef landscape.

  • Hermit Crab

    Hermit crab

    Howland Island is home to large numbers of the strawberry hermit crab, Coenobita perlatus. This large biomass of land crabs plays a dominant role in terrestrial food webs on the island where they consume a wide variety of organic matter.

  • Reptiles

    green turtle

    Two land species have been documented on Howland Island, the snake-eyed skink (Cryptoblepharus peocidopleurus) and mourning gecko (Lipidodactylus lugubris). Both were reported by Hague 1862. They then served as alternative prey for the cats when they were on the island. During recent visits, only the snake-eyed skink was found. Green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and Hawksbill turtles (Eretomochelys imbricata) are found foraging on the reef around Howland Island.

Last Updated: Mar 10, 2014
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