News: Bishop Museum collects ancient bird fossils at MCB Hawaii
Story by Kristen Wong
MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII - The waves of Kailua Bay continuously splash against the Ki‘i Point Beach shoreline, slowly gnawing away at the cliff-side near Kaneohe Bay Range Training Facility, sweeping away what remains of long-extinct animals.
On June 2 and 3, 2014, five Bishop Museum staff members came aboard Marine Corps Base Hawaii, collecting approximately 30 fossil samples.
“They’re capturing the history that we don’t have the staff, knowledge or experience to collect,” said Lance Bookless, the senior natural resources manager at the Environmental Compliance and Protection Department.
Bookless added that the specimens will remain government property after being curated and the base will still have access to them.
The Bishop Museum visited Marine Corps Base Hawaii from the early 1980s to 1999 and collected approximately 1,600 specimens. The fossils at the beach near K-Bay RTF are estimated to be up to 400,000 years old.
“We’re really excited the base has afforded us the opportunity (to have access to the beach and collect specimens),” said Molly Hagemann, the vertebrate zoology collection manager at the Bishop Museum. “Every find adds to the little knowledge we have. The specimens can provide evidence of when (animals) came here and how they’ve evolved. It’s important to know so we can look to the future and take care of the birds we have now.”
Through studying specimens, including the ones found on base, researchers were able to identify at least 30 known ancient bird species.
“There are approximately 20 more possible new species waiting to be named, but more fossil material is needed to fully describe them,” Hagemann said.
The museum has been unable to visit the base for nearly 15 years due to staffing, funding and other logistical issues, according to Carla Kishinami, the former collection manager of vertebrates at the museum.
Kishinami, who worked at Bishop Museum for more than 30 years, has visited MCB Hawaii to collect specimens on at least 10 occasions.
Now retired, Kishinami periodically returns to Bishop Museum to work on projects. She helped the team re-establish specific sections of the site that were determined by the museum staff during previous visits. These sections help to keep an accurate record of where each sample was taken. In this way, researchers can identify patterns, such as commonly-occurring bones in a certain area. She also supported the new staff members with her knowledge and experience from past visits.
The team did not dig, but rather found fossils through close examination of the sand surface and gentle sweeps of a brush or hand. Kishinami said they uncovered, among other things, the almost complete humerus (wing bone) of a duck and a partial lower mandible, or jaw, of a song bird. Because the site was once a freshwater lake, she said much of the remains are from ducks or other waterbirds.
Kishinami said that the site at MCB Hawaii is an important find because new discoveries were actually made there.
For the researchers, one significant find this week was the partial leg bone of what is believed to be the now-extinct Moa Nalo bird, which Hagemann said “evolved from a species of duck that established itself in Hawaii three million years ago.”
“One thing that always strikes me about (the specimens at MCB Hawaii is that they) are the most fossilized in terms of what people generally think of fossilization, (meaning they are) much more mineralized than other deposits,” Kishinami said. “When you tap them together they clink. There’s a real difference in the preservation of bones at this site than at other sites in Hawaii. They’re in very good condition.”
Bishop Museum will photograph the specimens and send pictures to paleontologists at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., who will help with bone identification. The museum is currently considering a future visit to the base next year.
“It’s an excellent site for finding the remains of these ancient birds,” Kishinami said. “I hope that the base and the museum can keep this going.”