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Republic of the Marshall Islands Biodiversity Clearing House Mechanism
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Animals of the Marshalls

When considering the animals of the Marshall Islands, the contrast between the land and the sea becomes very evident. Among the more than 5,000 species from 19 different phyla, the only phylum with a significant number of land species is the Arthropoda. Within this phylum, there are the close to 600 species of insects and almost all of these are terrestrial. Unlike areas with large freshwater sources, there are no strictly aquatic insect species in the Marshalls. However there are sea skaters, the only family of exclusively marine insects on earth. These true bugs periodically blow onshore, where they are eaten by birds and predatory seaside insects. Insects, along with land crabs, plus a few spiders, centipedes, scorpions and the like, play an important role in the land environment.

The majority of the 19 species of lizards are considered both native and terrestrial. Only the imported "tokake," mangrove monitor lizard (Varanus indicus), is reported to swim in the sea, and rarely at that. All of the 9 species of terrestrial mammals are imported. Birds represent the second largest grouping of land animals. Of the 106 species reported in the Marshalls, 19 species are natives and nest here. Six other species that have been recently introduced also nest. Seventy-eight are migratory and the rest probably only wander through, even though at times they seemed to have simply been blown off their normal courses.

The underwater environment virtually teems with a wide variety of life. Inshore, there are over 800 fishes. Deeper down, there are likely to be at least 120 species. It is very hard to know exactly what is in that vast area since it is difficult to study, and the records are scarce and incomplete. Hence, there may be hundreds more still out there, but undocumented.

Similarly in the open ocean, it can be figured that there must be at least 67 species of fishes on the high seas, but who knows how many there may be beyond that?

The accessible coral reef of the Marshall Islands is comprised of over 250 species of corals, with probably another 100 members of the same Cnidaria phylum. The mollusks are the biggest phylum in the country, with over 1,650 species from all 5 major classes.

Almost all animal phyla are present in the Marshall Islands, even obscure ones, like spoon worms (Echiura) and water bears (Tardigrada). Although the species from these so-called lesser phyla may typically be noteworthy primarily to scientists, some are familiar to the local people. The Subphylum Hemichordata has only 85 species worldwide, at least two being in the Marshalls, and one of these, "jaibo," is a popular food item on many atolls

Not all fishing is for fishes. For example, the fishing method called "kajiabo" is for catching "jaibo" or arrow worms. These are obviously not fishes, but hemichordates, and actually considered to have more in common in some ways with true fishes than with true worms. That aside, these worm-like animals inhabit the soft mud and sand of many lagoons. They are caught by skillfully inserting a "nok" (the midrib of a coconut leaflet) into the hole to impale the animal. The captured "jaibo" is then simply eaten raw - and is delicious!

From among the over 5,000 recorded animals, 142 different endemic species and subspecies have been identified, mainly among the insects. Some of these are from the groups that are least popular with people - no-see-ums, mosquitos - or ones so obscure that people generally don't know them - bryozoas, crinoids. But there are species or subspecies of endemic birds, including the popular pet and food bird, the Micronesian pigeon (Ducula oceanica ratakensis and D. o. oceanica).

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