Warnings from Rapa Nui

In the South Pacific, 2000 miles from land, lessons about resource depletion are as important as Easter Island's famed archaeology.

When Academy scientists go on vacation, they are not likely to read detective novels by the hotel pool. Terry Gosliner, a marine biologist, recently took his family to Chile's isolated Easter Island. Not only did the Gosliners view in awe the mysterious statues created by Polynesian peoples from 400 A.D. to 1400, but they also learned how culture and biodiversity are inextricably linked.

To roll the hundreds of 10-ton monoliths into place on shorelines, ancient islanders used logs and fiber ropes, decimating trees and lush palm forests. Extinctions occurred as vegetation declined. Water scarcity and failing agriculture followed, as a population of perhaps 10,000 on the 18-sq. mile island exceeded their natural resources. Archaeologists believe civil war resulted from the ecological disaster, leaving few survivors and barren landscapes. While on vacation, Terry pondered how modern societies face similar dilemmas about nature's services and can't afford to make the same mistakes.

There were some surprises in the realm of biodiversity. In the marshy bottom of a large volcanic crater near Orongo, Terry discovered a strangely familiar plant-the California tule, Scirpus californicus californicus. The busy tourist uncovered an undescribed species of opistobranch mollusk (sea slug), previously known only from Hawaii, and also found and photographed a lovely cowry endemic to Easter Island.

Cowry mollusk Cypraea caputdraconis
Photo: Terry Gosliner
Scirpus californicus californicus.
Photo: Terry Gosliner

Last Update 01/23/2003

Over 1000 volcanic stone statues were carved over a 1000-year period. They average 30 ft. in height and are called Moai by the people of Rapa Nui.
Photo: Terry Gosliner
Crater-Rano Raraku at Orongo where California tule plant was spotted. Photo: Terry Gosliner
Nudibranch-Chelidonura sp.
Photo: Terry Gosliner
Most of the statues had fallen or were toppled during civil strife, but in recent times archeologists have worked to place them again in standing position.
Photo: Terry Gosliner