The Kamehameha butterfly (Vanessa tameamea), named our state insect in 2009, is a very special butterfly to the Hawaiian Islands, that unfortunately also happens to be declining in population and geographic reach. It is endemic to Hawai'i, meaning that it is native to this region and cannot be found anywhere else. Historically, these beautiful insects have been found on all major Hawaiian Islands, however scientists have noticed they are no longer found in certain areas they used to be common, such as Tantalus on O'ahu. This is where the Pulelehua Project comes into play. This effort, spearheaded by the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (with funding from the State of Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources), aims to map current populations of the Kamehameha butterfly using citizen science observations submitted by the public, combined with surveys of remote areas by scientists.
Citizen science is a valuable way for the public to get involved in conservation of threatened species and help scientific discoveries. If you would like to help out the Pulelehua Project all you need to do is share your photos and observations of Kamehameha butterflies, caterpillars, eggs, or chrysalises to iNaturalist, a website and app that acts as a social network for sharing biodiversity information. If you are confident that you have seen a Kamehameha butterfly, but do not have a photo you can email the Pulelehua Project at email@example.com with a description of the sighting, location and date. Your data will be used to map the current distribution of the Kamehameha butterfly, and help to determine how and why its numbers have declined.
Before you get started searching for these insects, it is important to familiarize yourself with exactly what you are looking for and where. There are several species of butterflies in Hawaiian that look similar, and may be easily confused with the Kamehameha butterfly. Click here to view photos of "lookalike" butterflies and click here to see different stages of the Kamehameha butterfly's growth stages.
The Kamehameha butterfly likes to be around the plant family Urticaceae (nettle relatives). Its caterpillars are found only on the Hawaiian species of this family, meaning that these butterflies only reproduce in areas where these plants are found, which tends to be in places with native vegetation and moderate to heavy rainfall, like shady areas or gulches. Pictured below are images of the māmaki plant, the most popular host.