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How Bird Poop Helps Populate a New Volcanic Island With Life

Illustration for article titled How Bird Poop Helps Populate a New Volcanic Island With Life

In 2013, a new island was born off the coast of Japan. While some of these islands formed by volcanic eruptions are only temporary, Nii-jima (“new neighbor” in Japanese) kept growing, eventually consuming the nearby island of Nishino-shima as well. Now the entire landmass is coated in fresh lava just waiting for new lifeforms to arrive.


Scientists had a front-row seat for a similar process 1963, when the Icelandic island of Surtsey was formed. Although the two islands are climatically different, writes Hannah Waters at Hakai Magazine, the way the islands begin to support life will likely be the same. In the first few years of Surtsey’s existence, some plants took root which had floated to the island via salt-resistant seeds. But the real game-changers were the seafaring birds:

Birds poop, vomit, shed feathers, and drop food on the ground. They die and their bodies decompose. But mostly they poop. Over time, the gulls’ noxious leavings accumulated into a thin layer of soil rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and minerals. Those nutrients changed everything. Small seeds were able to sprout and take root amid the gull colony. Insects arrived to eat the plants, and terrestrial birds flew over to eat the insects.


This all happened incredibly fast: The birds didn’t even come around for two full decades after volcanic eruptions ended, but once they did, the transformation went quickly, with 69 new species making their homes on Surtsey. Nii-jima is even more remote—over 600 miles from mainland Japan—so it may take much longer to see the same kind of biodiversity. But it will likely begin with the birds, whenever they decide to stop by.

[Hakai Magazine]

Top image: Japan Coast Guard

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‘climactically different’, or ‘climatically different’?

There’s, uhhm, a difference.