Surtsey Island's Mysterious Plant Invader


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Surtsey Island is a relatively new addition to the world. On November 14, 1963, a fisherman spotted a plume of smoke off the southern coast of Iceland. What he thought was a boat on fire was actually an underwater volcanic eruption. The eruption lasted for nearly four years, and by the time it ended in June 1967, a brand-new island had formed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

But we’re not talking Maui here, or even Mackinac. Surtsey is uninhabitable and unstable, with wind and wave erosion steadily (and quickly) eating away at the land. (It will likely be underwater again by 2100.) The site is considered a living laboratory, so only scientists and researchers have been allowed to visit the island for many years. They try not to disturb anything in order to study ecological succession—in other words, to see how plants and animals establish a presence on new land masses without any human intervention.

You can imagine, then, how surprised biologist Ágúst Bjarnason was in 1969 to find that a completely foreign plant had sprung up in the middle of the island.

“Those who discovered the plant, three or four foreign nature scientists and one Icelandic botanist, weren’t able to identify it,” wrote Bjarnason, who was responsible for monitoring the island’s plant growth. Perplexed and wondering what sort of scientific breakthrough he was about to find, Bjarnason hurried to Surtsey to investigate, and did indeed find a strange, 5-inch-tall plant growing between two lava rocks.

After a little more sleuthing, Bjarnason realized that the mystery plant wasn’t so mysterious after all. “Underneath [the plant] was a peculiar pile which was very soft when I poked it. Suddenly it dawned on me what it was. Someone had done their business … and this beautiful tomato plant, 15-cm tall, had grown out of the faeces. … I put everything in a plastic bag and closed it securely. I made sure not to leave anything behind so that the natural settlement [of plants] wouldn’t be compromised.”

Case (gladly) closed.