Science Visitors Only: Watching Life Grow on a New Island

We spend a lot of time looking at history and imagining—”what was it like when…?” As a biologist, I find myself most drawn to stories about the evolution of life. Why does this plant have purplish leaves? How did this species end up in a symbiotic relationship with this other species? How did this animal get to this tiny island 20 miles off the Southern coast of Iceland?

The volcanic island of Surtsey erupting in 1963.
The newly formed island of Surtsey erupting in 1963.

That last one was too specific to be rhetorical, wasn’t it? The volcanic island of Surtsey broke the ocean surface on November 14, 1963, and continued to erupt until June 5, 1967, reaching its maximum size of 2.7 km2 (about the size of Central Park in New York City). At this size, it was large enough to be a good site for biocolonization. Only a few scientists are allowed to visit the island, ensuring that colonization of the island can occur without human interference.

Even before volcanic activity on Surtsey had ceased, plants started to pop up on its northern shore. Within the first 20 years of the island’s life, 20 different species of plant tried to gain a foothold; 10 succeeded. Eventually, birds nesting on the island improved the soil conditions, and in 2008, 69 plant species had been found, including mosses, lichens, vascular plants, and even a tea-leaved willow bush.

Salix phylicifolia, the tea-leaved willow bush.
Salix phylicifolia is the first species of woody plant found on Surtsey. Photo credit: Daderot

The youth of this island means that every bird, mold and fly that is found is an exciting discovery. These days, the island is visited by migratory birds such as geese and ravens on their way between Europe and Iceland. Grey seals and harbor seals have established breeding colonies on the island, which has attracted orcas to the waters surrounding the land. Other birds, like gulls, puffins and golden plover have been found nesting on Surtsey.

Surtsey is a short-term experiment in evolutionary terms: the island will likely be eroded to or beneath sea level by 2100. Plant ecologist Borgthór Magnússon estimates that the island’s biodiversity will continue to increase for another few decades, before the land loss is too great; in its ~60 years, Surtsey has already lost more than half of its surface area. But there’s still plenty of time for budding wildlife ecologists to science before the marine biologists take over.

Fun Facts

Surtsey is named after Surtr, a mythical fire giant in Norse mythology.

There were tomato plants on the island briefly, before they were destroyed for being improperly introduced. The likely cause? Some renegade human poop.

Surtsey had two brother islands, Jólnir and Syrtlingur, that were rapidly eroded away by wind and water.

Still curious? Read Surtsey: Evolution of Life on a Volcanic Island by the “Duke of Surtsey” himself, Sturla Fridriksson.

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Julia is a Science Writer at Promega. She earned a B.S. in biology and a B.A. in chemistry from University of North Carolina Wilmington, and a PhD from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her hobbies include reading fantasy novels, playing Magic: The Gathering, ultimate frisbee, Netflix, and long walks to the fridge.

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