Hawaiian Crake Porzana sandwichensis (Gmelin, 1789)
- RMNH 87450: Hawaii. Collected during voyage of Captain J. Cook. Syntype Rallus sandwichensis Gmelin, 1789.
Hawaiian Crake and Laysan Crake
Most birds which became extinct in historical times were inhabitants of islands, where the fragile natural balance was easily disturbed by species introduced by man. The most notorious threat to these mostly endemic species were rats, but much damage was also done by cats, dogs, mongooses, goats and rabbits. Especially rails of the Pacific, many of which in the course of evolution had lost the ability to fly, suffered heavily from the invaders
The Leiden Museum possesses four extinct species of rail from the Pacific. Two of these lived in the Hawaiian Archipelago: the Hawaiian Crake and the Laysan Crake. The first specimens of the Hawaiian Crake were collected on the island of Hawai'i during Captain James Cook's third voyage in 1779. William Ellis, the ship's surgeon on the Adventure, made the first illustrations of this rail. These were used by Johann Gmelin to give the species its scientific name, Rallus sandwichensis, referring to the former name of the archipelago, the Sandwich Islands.
In the 1870s Sanford Dole, a resident of Hawai'i, believed that he had discovered a second species of rail on the island, Pennula millei. This species differed from the Hawaiian Crake in the colour of its plumage, which was somewhat darker. Nowadays it is generally believed that the paler birds are immatures of the same species. By chance, Cook's expedition had only obtained young birds. The specimen in Naturalis is one of the birds collected during Cook's voyage. It was purchased by Coenraad J. Temminck, the first director of the Leiden Museum, at the Bullock auction in London in 1819. The Hawaiian Crake was a real bargain; it cost only one pound and fifteen shilling.
The other extinct rail from the Hawaiian archipelago lived on the remote island of Laysan, where it was quite plentiful. These small Laysan Crakes were seldom disturbed by humans and were anything but shy. They even entered buildings in search of food. The introduction of guinea pigs and rabbits on Laysan proved fatal to the birds. These animals almost completely destroyed the species' habitat and the Laysan Crake had disappeared from the island by 1936. Some birds had were relocated to islands in the Midway Atoll. Here they seemed to flourish, until hurricanes and rats from a U.S. Navy landingcraft destroyed or invaded the islands in 1943. Two years later the Laysan Crake was extinct. It is somewhat ironical, that at that time the original habitat on Laysan had just been restored. Too late as it turned out.