Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Department ofBotany

Ua Pou. Photo by K.R. Wood, NTBG

The Marquesas Islands are an isolated group of 12 volcanic hot spot islands in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. They are one of the five archipelagos of French Polynesia.

Located between the latitudes of 7°53’ and 10°35’ S and the longitudes of 138°25’ and 141°27’ W, the Marquesas Islands are situated farther from any continental area than any other Pacific archipelago. The nearest continent is the west coast of North America, some 4850 km away. Despite its remoteness, the Marquesas Islands are less isolated than the Hawaiian Islands because of its location near the atolls of the Tuamotu Archipelago (480 km to the south) and the high islands of the Society Islands (1370 km to the southwest).

The individual islands range in size from 61.3 to 330 sq. km., with a total land surface area of about 1300 sq. km. The archipelago embodies roughly 6% of the area of the Hawaiian Archipelago; the larger Marquesan Islands are slightly smaller than the Hawaiian island of Lana’i. The islands are aligned in a NW to SE chain, which forms an axis nearly parallel to the other archipelagoes of the eastern Pacific. Among the 12 islands, three have peaks over 1220 m high. Island elevation ranges from 360 to 1250 m. The radiometric ages have placed the youngest island at 1.3 million years (Fatu Hiva) and the oldest at 6 million years (Eiao).

Fatu Hiva. Photo by W.L. Wagner, NMNH The topography of the Marquesas Islands is extremely rugged and beautiful. There are essentially no developed coastal plains or coral reefs. The rugged topography has produced varied habitats on the larger islands ranging from dry on the leeward sides to mesic valleys and cloud covered summits. Rainfall ranges roughly from 100 to over 280 cm per year.

Oave, Ua Pou. Photo by S.P. Perlman, NTBGAll of the larger islands, except Ua Pou, appear to consist of half of an original volcano. Each of these islands has a prominent central ridge, except Hiva Oa and Nuku Hiva, both of which have elevated plateau regions. Beyond the steep slopes rising directly from the ocean the most striking features of the archipelago are the towering peaks of Ua Pou and the long narrow ridge of Fatu Hiva, which is so narrow and eroded in some places that it has holes through it several hundred meters from the summit.

Taken from Wagner and Lorence. 1997. Studies of Marquesas Vascular Plants: Introduction.

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