Field Journal: Dawn on a Sky Island

by AMNH on

From the Field posts

Chris Filardi is director of Pacific Programs at the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. This month, he’s blogging from the remote highlands of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, where he is surveying endemic biodiversity and working with local partners to create a protected area.

The weather is perfect. The camp ridge is visible as we load the chopper and the prospect of getting to work has me reflecting on the dual purpose of this expedition. The cultural and scientific significance of the area we are surveying are closely intertwined.

Tiangi Ceremony
Before the expedition, the team formally presented the Uluna-Sutahuri tribe, which has land rights over Mt. Popomanaseu, with food and gifts.
© AMNH/P. Sweet

The high forests of Guadalcanal, known as Tetena Haiaja to Uluna-Sutahuri people, represent what ecologists call a sky island—a mountainous area surrounded by radically different lowland environments. A sky island situated on an actual oceanic island adds a further layer of isolation. The ecological and evolutionary phenomena of sky islands are due in part to the climatic quirks that occur in these areas. The clouds that make it so tough to access this region are generated by the mountains themselves, with moist air rising, cooling, and then releasing from rain clouds almost daily. The resulting supply of fresh water is key to life on these islands.

Two men on a grassy landing field with supplies and equipment in the foreground a helicopter in the background.
Solomon Islands biologist and expedition guide Edgar Pollard (right) sorts gear for loading into the helicopter.
© AMNH/C. Filardi

Physically remote and often considered sacred, oceanic sky islands form a far-flung network of largely untrammeled and unstudied ‘islands within islands’ across the Pacific. Our work with the Uluna-Sutahuri people is not only about understanding the science of this place; we are partnering to directly support the merging of local histories and contemporary land stewardship practices that honor cultural legacies while addressing the challenges of today. 

These surveys are a first step in the legal process of recognizing Uluna-Sutahuri interests in maintaining Tetena Haiaja as a sacred, or tabu, area under newly passed protected areas legislation that recognizes customary ownership of land and sea. The Uluna-Sutahuri, as well as ourselves, hope this can be a catalyst for similar sky island initiatives across the Pacific Islands region.

Landing Pad 2
The landing pad at our destination. Yes, the tail of the helicopter is dangling over the abyss.
© AMNH/C. Filardi

But here at the helipad, still working towards our destination upland, the last 24 hours have been filled with gentle guidance from Uluna-Sutahuri leadership on this stage of our work while we navigate the traffic-clogged roads of the capital, Honiara, dodging feral dogs, filling requests for additional equipment, and sorting last minute personal gear. Now with the helicopter loaded and waiting for me to board, I am ready for this rare, clear run hovering above countless footsteps from the past into today’s high forests of Guadalcanal.