Nahawele lii lii – Hawaiian Mussel – Marine Mussels

Biology Connections – Ike Noeau:

Nahawele li̒i li̒i, or Hawaiian mussel, is a type of bivalve that is endemic to Hawaii. Attached to substrate using strong byssal threads, these creatures are filter feeders which eat plankton floating in the ocean. The external shell is split into two halves (hence the name bivalve) which are connected by a hinge ligament. Inside the shell of the mussel is the foot, a strong muscular organ the mussel uses to move and attach to the substrate. The strong byssal threads which connect the mussel to the substrate have remarkable adhesive properties which humans have tried to mimic to create glue that works in water. Nahawele li̒i li̒i are found all across the Hawaiian archipelago but are most commonly seen around Maui or the Island of Hawai’i. They are commonly found at the low or high tide mark along coastlines where they form clusters or beds, and grow to their largest size when in brackish water (a mixture of saltwater and freshwater). As filter feeders, nahawele li̒i li̒i play an important role in cleaning the water and are threatened themselves by high levels of nearshore pollution. 

Cultural Connections – Mo’olelo:

The story of the ever-powerful god Kaulu features a mussel, the opihi, and explains its salty taste. Kaulu was born in Oahu, but refused to take the form of a human because an older brother threatened to kill him. Instead, Kaulu appears in the form of a rope and is guarded by a different brother, Kaeha, until it is time for him to become human. One day, Kaeha is taken away to lands in the sky, and Kaulu follows to rescue him. The gods try to destroy Kaeha in a variety of ways, including trapping him in a mussel (opihi) shell. In an effort the open the mussel, Kaeha urinates in the shell. This trick works and eventually, Kaeaha and his brother Kaulu reunite and become chiefs. This story explains why the opihi mussel is salty and bitter when eaten (Hawaiian Mythology).


The Hawaiian mussel is featured in the 26th line of the creation chant

Hanau ka Nahawele, o ka Unauna kana keiki, puka
Born was the mussel, his child the hermit crab came forth