There’s no way to predict what Nishinoshima, about 600 miles south of Tokyo, will look like in 10 years, but the key to kickstarting life on this rock will probably be bird poop.
“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,” Naoki Kachi, professor and leader of Tokyo Metropolitan University’s Ogasawara Research Committee, told Agence France-Presse.
Though Nishinoshima was first born in 1974, the older version of the island was recently “engulfed,” as AFP put it, by land created during eruptions in 2013. It’s now expanded to about a square mile — more than three times its original size — and is ready for what science fiction fans might call “terraforming.” In this case, however, volcanic rock won’t be made habitable by futuristic machines, but by nature.
And bird poop — along with bird feathers, bird corpses and regurgitated bits of bird food — will be the stuff that makes this wasteland bloom. Eventually, the vile layer of yuck will turn into soil that can support plant life.
From there, the sky’s the limit — in the Darwinian sense.
“We biologists are very much focusing on the new island because we’ll be able to observe the starting point of evolutionary processes,” Kachi said.
Scientists have observed a similar phenomenon on remote islands before. As AFP pointed out, an island that came to be known as Surtsey emerged from the brisk waters of the North Atlantic about 20 miles south of volcanic Iceland in 1963. Though less than a square mile and offering none of the charms of, say, Reykjavik, Surtsey came to be the home of quite the posse of creatures. First came molds, bacteria and fungi — then, within a decade, plants. Today, almost 90 species of birds and more than 300 invertebrates are at least part-time Surtseyians.
“Free from human interference, Surtsey has been producing unique long-term information on the colonization process of new land by plant and animal life,” UNESCO wrote.
But there’s the rub — to see how Nishinoshima develops, it must be kept in a pristine state of nature worthy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This means, among other things, protecting the island from idiot vulcanologists.
“I’d like to call on anyone who lands on the island to pay special attention to keeping it the way it is — not to take external species there,” said Kachi, who has used fumigated prep spaces to decontaminate equipment before studying other islands in the past. “… Biologists know the business, but probably the first batch of scientists who will land on the island will be geologists and vulcanologists — who may not be familiar with the problems.”
For now, Kachi can rest easy: Nishinoshima, only studied by air, has yet to feel the weight of a human footfall.