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Located about 2300 miles (3680 km) from the nearest continental shore, the Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated group of islands on the planet. The plant and animal life of the Hawaiian archipelago is the result of early, very infrequent colonizations of arriving species and the slow evolution of those species—in isolation from the rest of the world's flora and fauna—over a period of at least 5 millions years. As a consequence, Hawai'i is home to a large number of endemic species. The radiation of species described by Charles Darwin in the Galapagos Islands which was critical to the formulation of his theory of evolution is far exceeded in the more isolated Hawaiian Islands.
The relatively short time that the existing main islands of the archipelago have been above the surface of the ocean (less than 10 million years) is only a fraction of time span over which biological colonization and evolution have occurred in the archipelago. High, volcanic islands have existed in the Pacific far longer, extending in a chain to the northwest; these once mountainous islands are now reduced to submerged banks and coral atolls. Midway Atoll, for example, formed as a volcanic island some 28 million years ago. Kure Atoll, a little further to the northwest, is near the Darwin point—defined as waters of a temperature that allows coral reef development to just keep up with isostatic sinking. And extending back in time before Kure, an even older chain of islands spreads northward nearly to the Aleutian Islands; these former islands, all north of the Darwin point, are now completely submerged as the Emperor Seamounts.
The islands are well known for the environmental diversity that occurs on high mountains within a trade winds field. On a single island, the climate can differ around the coast from dry tropical (< 20 in or 500 mm annual rainfall) to wet tropical; and up the slopes from tropical rainforest (> 200 in or 5000 mm per year) through a temperate climate into alpine conditions of cold and dry climate. The rainy climate impacts soil development, which largely determines ground permeability, which affects the distribution of streams, wetlands, and wet places.
The distance and remoteness of the Hawaiian archipelago is a biological filter. Seeds or spores attached to a lost migrating bird's feather or an insect falling out of the high winds found a place to survive in the islands and whatever else was needed to reproduce. The narrowing of the gene pool meant that at the very beginning, the population of a colonizing species was a bit different from that of the remove, contributing population.
Throughout time, the Hawaiian Islands formed linearly from northwest to the southeast. A study was conducted to determine the approximate ages of the Hawaiian Islands using K–Ar dating of the oldest found igneous rocks from each island. Kauai was determined to be about 5.1 million years old, Oahu about 3.7 million years old and the youngest island of Hawaii about 0.43 million years old. By determining the maximum age of the islands, inferences could be made about the maximum possible age of organisms inhabiting the island. The newly formed islands were able to accommodate growing populations, while the new environments were causing high rates of new adaptations.
Human contact, first by Polynesians and later by Europeans, has had a significant impact. Both the Polynesians and Europeans cleared native forests and introduced non-indigenous species for agriculture (or by accident), driving many endemic species to extinction. Fossil finds in caves, lava tubes, and sand dunes have revealed an avifauna that once had an endemic eagle, two raven-size crows, several bird-eating owls, and giant ducks known as moa-nalos.
Today, many of the remaining endemic species of plants and animals in the Hawaiian Islands are considered endangered, and some critically so. Plant species are particularly at risk: out of a total of 2,690 plant species, 946 are non-indigenous with 800 of the native species listed as endangered.