Entomologist Cynthia King is Tasked With Protecting Hawai‘i’s Biodiversity
As lead entomologist for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, Cynthia King and her team are tasked with protecting 87% of our state’s total biodiversity. She started the first state insectary, established to propagate native rare invertebrates and other of Hawai‘i’s smallest and most overlooked species, including our state insect, the Kamehameha butterfly.
When I started my position, it had been vacant for 20 years. It was a little bit overwhelming. I was familiar with such a sliver of insects at the time—it’s like having a biologist who studied prairie dogs be tasked with saving all the animals on the continent of Africa.
Earlier this year, we had one species of snail in our snail lab that was the last individual of a species that was known to exist. George represented what we all know is happening out there but can’t always see with our own eyes.
George’s body is frozen in our snail morgue, in his shell.
Everything within our native ecosystems has evolved over millions of years to depend on each other, whether it’s pollinators on plants, nutrient recyclers, seed dispersers. Anytime you lose one component, you’re essentially creating a hole in that ecosystem. We’ve lost thousands of species across the state. It really impacts how watersheds function and impacts how our iconic tree species can persist in the long term—innumerable effects that are hard to quantify.
You see these things that have evolved over millions of years and have come to this sort of evolutionary perfection and to know that they are disappearing because we have been careless is something that I think should impact all of us.
I joked that when my son was born, I was starting my own at-home captive rearing project.
There are so many things in biology that I think about as a parent—we have software programs out there to analyze bird calls or frog songs and I think it’s really strange that we’re not using that for babies. When parents are wondering, why is my baby crying, I think, why don’t we have a wildlife app that’s analyzing those calls?
I probably kill more insects than most people. Especially in urban environments, I’m hyperaware of what is a good guy versus a bad guy, and almost everything in Hawai‘i is a bad guy. The cockroaches, the ants, the centipedes (not an insect, but an invertebrate) are not native. I have no qualms about eliminating them. If it’s bothering you in your house, I always give people free license to kill.