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Hawaiian Word of the Day: Pulelehua

March 28, 2014

If you were listening to Hawai‘i Public Radio on your drive to work Tuesday morning, you might have heard host Leilani Poli‘ahu announce that the Hawaiian word of the day was “pulelehua,” or butterfly. How serendipitous! When I arrived at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Park Ranger (and photographer extraordinaire) Jay Robinson grabbed me. He was eager to show off the stunning chrysalis of an endemic Kamehameha pulelehua (Vanessa tameamea). He had discovered the chrysalis attached to a māmaki leaf (also endemic) in his yard over the weekend.

chrysalis from Kamehameha butterfly

The exquisite chrysalis of a Kamehameha butterfly. Photo by Jay Robinson, who prefers to call the chrysalis of the Kamehameha pulelehua “crystal bliss.”

Jay observed the chrysalis like an expectant father over the next few days, then watched his “baby” go through the metamorphosis butterflies and moths are famous for. The emergence from the chrysalis took less than 30 seconds. Then the pulelehua unfurled its brand-new wings and spent a few hours getting used to them. It eventually took off from the host māmaki, and landed on another endemic plant species, a “mintless” mint.  A mint that just happened to be in bloom. Lucky for us, Jay captured this stunning photo yesterday:


The endemic Kamehameha butterfly unfurled its wings, and landed on another endemic species, a”mintless” mint! Photo by Jay Robinson.

According to Pratt & Stone in the 2nd edition of Hawai‘i’s Plants and Animals: Biological Sketches of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park,  the Kamehameha butterfly is one of two species of endemic pulelehua found in Hawai‘i. (The other is the Blackburn butterfly, Udara blackburni, and is not observed as frequently as the Kamehameha butterfly). Kamehameha pulelehua are sap and nectar feeders, and the females lay their eggs on the leaves of  the native “nettleless” nettle, the māmaki (Pipturus albidus). The caterpillars hatch, then pupate about a month later. Adult butterflies emerge in about two weeks, according to Pratt & Stone. (This excellent reference book is chock full of beautiful illustrations by Joan Yoshioka, and is available in the Hawai‘i Pacific Parks Association bookstores in the park).

To learn more about the Kamehameha pulelehua, visit the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa project website devoted to saving them, 

Pulelehua. The Hawaiian Word of the Jay. ;)



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