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The State of Aloha

When we were growing up, we used to have a big picture window in the living room. At night the lights from our house attracted bugs. They would hang out on the glass outside. We would watch them from our couch and wait. That’s because the light brought the bugs, and the bugs brought geckos.

They crawled on their pale bellies — sometimes their skin was so translucent that you could see the eggs they carried — across the glass inching closer and closer to an unassuming bug. When the moment was right, it would strike. A long sticky tongue shoots out of its mouth, hits its target and swiftly brings the bug in for the kill. We heard them too. The clicking and clacking of hidden geckos was a familiar sound for us, and just about anyone else living on Maui.

Catching one required quick, but gentle hands. You didn’t want to squeeze it too hard for obvious reasons. You also didn’t want to be so slow they’d jump or run away. You also had to catch them in the right spot — in the middle. They could also wiggle away and leave you with their writhing, bloody tail.

Reptiles are part of the household in Hawaii. Geckos and skinks have been here in the islands for centuries. Biologists have concluded that Hawaii’s isolation from large land masses prevented these reptiles from coming here on their own. They must have arrived with humans.

That would make sense. Native Hawaiian legends told on every island about mythic reptiles known as mo’o. The legends vary and the mo’o eludes any precise definition.

Some stories of the mo’o are reminiscent of European dragons — large mythological lizards. They can also form part of the landscape. One legend tells of the goddess Pele who killed a mo’o on Maui. She cut the mo’o into pieces and threw the tail in the ocean. That tail is the curved islet of Molokini between Maui and Kahoolawe. The head is the large cinder cone of Pu’u Ola’i nearby.

Other stories describe mo’o as shapeshifting spirits and guardians. Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui provides two definitions. Mo’o can mean a lizard, reptile of any kind, dragon, serpent or a water spirit. But it also means succession, series or lineage. In her authoritative Hawaiian-English dictionary, she provides an example. “Mo’o hihia” means a series of difficulties or trouble.

Native Hawaiians telling legends and stories of large, mythical reptiles and stories of spirits taking the form of large lizards is a bit of a mystery. Without large reptiles like iguanas, monitor lizards or crocodiles, it’s perplexing that the mo’o is a prominent and important part of the Native Hawaiian belief system.

What is less mysterious and much clearer are the little reptiles that now inhabit our islands. Hawaii has eight different species of gecko. The early Polynesian settlers introduced four different geckos and three species of skinks. (A fourth skink with blue tail was also introduced but is extinct here. No one has seen one since the 1960s.).

Another species, the house gecko, was introduced not long after World War II. This was the gecko we saw on our windows hunting bugs and heard from our rafters with its mirthful chirping. It moved in on the territory of other geckos and is believed to be the most common gecko in Hawaii today.

In the 1980s and ’90s, geckos enjoyed great publicity and were Hawaii’s unofficial mascot. Forget whales and turtles, neon green geckos wearing equally bright sunglasses adorned shorts, surfboards, T-shirts and hats. It always struck me as odd that we had green geckos on our clothing, but never in our homes. House geckos and other species were brown or a milky white color.

Perhaps the green gecko fashion craze was a prescient warning. A newer arrival came in the 1970s when it was introduced at the University of Hawaii in Manoa. In the 1990s, it made its way to Kihei. Nowadays, it has taken over the islands.

The gold dust day gecko is green with orange stripes between its dark eyes. Around the eyes are a spot of blue resembling eye shadow. And of course, its back is speckled with gold. Scientists are still working out how its introduction is impacting the environment.

There are other green geckos mainly on Oahu. For example, the large Madagascar green day gecko can get up to a foot in length and is nasty. Not only can they get big, they bite.

The story of Hawaii’s reptiles continues. Geckos along with chameleons, lizards, and skinks thrive in the islands. As long as there are people coming here, you can be sure a little reptile will be hitching a ride.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”

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