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Get to Know Hawaii’s Favorite Winged Mammal, the Ope’ape’a / Hawaiian Hoary Bat

Hawaii’s forests are filled with diverse wildlife, with many species on the endangered species list. One special forest dweller is our only living native land animal, the Hawaiian hoary bat or ope’ape’a. The ope’ape’a is the official state mammal of Hawaii. Read on to learn more about Hawaii’s special little creature of the night.

What is an Ope’ape’a / Hawaiian Hoary Bat?

Ope’ape’a are considered to be a subspecies of the North American hoary bat. North American hoary bats found their way to Hawaii about 10,000 years ago. This was quite a feat for such a small bat, with the closest migration landfall to Hawaii in the Farallon Islands off California 3,665 kms away. Ope’ape’a have a wingspan of about a foot, about 30% smaller than their Mainland cousins. Females are larger than males. Ope’ape’a have brown and gray fur with “hoary” (frosted) tips.

Ope’ape’a in Hawaiian culture

The Hawaiian name Ope’ape’a refers to the canoe sail like shape of the bats wings in flight. The word pe’a is also used to describe the shape of stingray wings. In the Kumulipo Hawaiian creation chant, bats are created just before humans. Further along in the chant is mention of a conflict between Pe’ape’a-maka-walu, “the great god of bats,” and the demigod Maui who scratches his eyes out.

Ope’ape’a habitat

Like most bats, ope’ape’a are nocturnal feeders. Ope’ape’a are insectivores, feeding on insects with Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) as their favorite food. Ope’ape’a do not roost in caves or man-made roosting boxes, instead they prefer to roost in tall trees during the day. On the Big Island, ope’ape’a are found primarily in forests from sea level to 7,500 feet elevation (although they have been observed near the island’s summits above 13,000 feet on rare occasions). Scientists track ope’ape’a using acoustic receivers that detect echolocation calls. It is difficult to get an accurate population estimate because ope’ape’a are solitary outside of breeding.

Where to See Ope’ape’a

Ope’ape’a are easiest to observe just after sunset. On the West side of the Big Island, ope’ape’a have been spotted at Kaloko-Honokohau National Park, at the old K-mart parking lot around the parking lamps, and off of the Ane Keohokalole highway. On the East side, ope’ape’a have been seen around Laupahoehoe, Pahoa, and the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Recent research suggests that the best time to see ope’ape’a is from April to December at low elevations below 4,000 feet. There appears to be a connection between bat sightings and bodies of water (including the ocean), but more research is needed.

Ope’ape’a Research and Conservation

On the Big Island, ope’ape’a are threatened by deforestation and Rapid Ohia Death (ROD). It is not known how big an impact pesticides and insecticides have on the bats. On other islands, bats are being killed by wind turbines, causing great concern for those populations. Limiting the spread of ROD, preserving forest canopy habitats, and reducing use of barbed wire all help ope’ape’a. If you do come across an injured ope’ape’a, contact the Hawaii Wildlife Center.

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