You might think that the current geographic state of the Earth has been this way for at least a few million years, but surprisingly it has not. In the vast ocean, islands appear and disappear as the will of volcanic activity, although it is very rare to be able to study any of them. When in 2015 an underwater volcano in the South Pacific erupted, the force was so strong that it created the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai island, and with it, a biological laboratory to study the very origin of the ecosystems. But just as it emerged from nowhere, the island disappeared, leaving researchers confused.
The Birth of an Island
Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai Island was born in 2015 as a result of underwater volcanic activity in the Pacific Ocean. In that year, one of the submarine volcanoes in the South Pacific had erupted, and its impetuous lava had created a new island practically out of nowhere. This is how volcanologists and geologists had the opportunity to investigate the birth of volcanic islands and their characteristics. But as biologists and ecologists joined the adventure, they found an unprecedented opportunity to study the genesis of ecosystem formation.
[Photo: Lauren Ward]
“These types of volcanic eruptions happen all over the world, but they don’t usually produce islands. We had an incredibly unique opportunity,” said microbial ecology Nick Dragone, lead author of the research.
The research team led by Dragone, part of the University of Colorado Boulder, seized the rare opportunity to analyze the rise of the island from the very beginning and found the genesis of life itself. They met the first microbial colonizers of the newly formed island, a fact that perfectly illustrates the birth of ecosystems before more complex beings, such as animals or plants, start to appear.
The Genesis of Ecosystems
The biggest discovery in the research was the existence of a never-before-seen microbial community that was capable of metabolizing sulfur and atmospheric gases, which caught the researchers’ attention because of the knowledge of the existence of similar organisms that were found in deep-sea vents or hot springs.
[Photo: Guo Lei]
“We didn’t see what we were expecting,” says Dragone, “we thought we’d see organisms you find when a glacier retreats or cyanobacteria, more typical early colonizer species, but instead, we found a unique group of bacteria that metabolize sulfur and atmospheric gases.”
Dragone and his team believe that one of the reasons they observed these unique types of microbes is due to the properties associated with volcanic eruptions, involving a lot of sulfur and hydrogen sulfide gas, which likely fuel the unique taxa that they found.
“The microbes were similar to those found in hydrothermal vents, hot springs like Yellowstone, and other volcanic systems. Our best guess is the microbes came from those types of sources,” added Dragone.
Researchers had plans to return to the island and continue with their microbial studies. However, in early 2022, the eruption of the Hunga Tonga underwater volcano occurred. That was how the island that emerged out of nowhere years ago found its end and disappeared without a trace.
“We are, of course, disappointed that the island is gone, but now we have a lot of predictions about what happens when new islands form,” declares Dragone, “So if something forms again, we would love to go there and collect more data. We would have a game plan of how to study it.”
Story originally published in Spanish in Ecoosfera.