Newly Emerged Island Could Be A "Natural Lab" To Study Evolution

Ninshinoshima in March 2015. NASA Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen

What happens when you combine a splat of poop, a dash of vomit and a peppering of decomposing flesh to a shiny new piece of land? A thriving ecosystem, scientists hope anyway.

Back in November 2013, Nishinoshima, a volcanic island nearly 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) south of Tokyo, began erupting for the first time in 40 years, leaving the Ogasawara island chain with a small new addition. But the eruption was by no means fleeting, and by Christmas Eve the new island, originally named Niijima, merged with Nishinoshima.

Unclear as to when activity may cease, the volcano continues to spurt out lava today, mostly towards the east from the main vent. While this is gradually extending the size of the island, it is also continually being trimmed down by erosion from the sea. As it stands, it is roughly the size of 345 football pitches, or 2.46 square kilometers (0.95 square miles) in size, according to the Japan Coast Guard.

Although the island is pretty barren right now, mostly consisting of bare volcanic rock, scientists are hopeful that in the not-too-distant future it will be adorned with flora, and possibly even fauna. And this is an exciting prospect for scientists, who will get the rare opportunity to examine life on the island as it gradually springs into being and changes over time.

“We biologists are very much focusing on the new island because we’ll be able to observe the starting point of evolutionary processes,” Naoki Kachi, leader of Tokyo Metropolitan University’s Ogasawara Research Committee, told AFP. After the lava stops flowing, Kachi says, various plant species may make their way to the island by means of ocean currents, winds and droppings from bird species that start to take residence there. The latter, combined with an appetizing mix of regurgitated food and decaying birds, should start to create some fertile soil for the plants to grow.

“I am most interested in the effects of birds on the plants’ ecosystem – how their bodily wastes-turned-organic fertilizers enrich the vegetation and how their activities disturb it,” Kachi told AFP.

Although scientists aren’t sure when the lava will stop flowing, it is believed that Nishinoshima may follow in the footsteps of another recently emerged island, Surtsey, which popped up back in the ‘60s off the coast of Iceland. Now a UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site, this “natural laboratory” has allowed researchers to follow the flora and fauna on this unique island as they have evolved.

According to UNESCO’s website, since its inception, “scientists have observed the arrival of seeds carried by ocean currents, the appearance of molds, bacteria and fungi, followed in 1965 by the first vascular plant.” Now, there are 60 species of vascular plants, 24 fungi, 71 lichens, 89 birds and 335 invertebrates. Whether this hasty boom in diversity will also occur on Nishinoshima remains to be seen, but it’s an exciting prospect nonetheless. 

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