Nothing Gets In Or Out – The fascinating nature of life on islands

One of my current art projects looks at the idea of islands and life. Click for link.

Each year coyotes, somehow, make their way through the sprawling mass of the five burroughs and find their way into Central Park on the island of Manhattan. Island or not, dangerous or not, life seems to find a way to squeeze through the gaps to insulated sanctuaries even in the most unpredictable circumstances.

Islands have an impenetrable feel to them. They are locked away from access except by sea or by sky, and yet there always seems to be a travelling presence of something. There are uncountable records of remote islands ceding to populations from insect, animal, bird and even human. And as unlikely as it seems, and no matter how remote the destination, somehow life finds a way to expand and populate.

Image sourced at, click for link. Image by Patrick Honan / Nick Carlile, link unavailable.

Take for example the giant insects found on Ball’s Pyramid, a tiny island not far from the coast of Australia. These hand-sized crawlers, known informally as “tree lobsters”, somehow managed to find their way onto an uninhabited (and barely habitable) rocky precipice in the Pacific Ocean after having long been declared extinct from their only known habitat on the nearby Lord Howe Island. The flightless insects miraculously survived on the outpost thirteen miles away, with no clue as to how they managed to cross the ocean between.

The young volcanic island of Surtsey, just south of Iceland, holds a clue to this mystery. Surtsey erupted into existence from under the ocean in 1963. Since it first appeared this desolate rock has been scrutinised by biologists as it is seen as an excellent opportunity to watch how life develops on an island without human interference. It is forbidden for people to step foot on the island, with the exception of the scientists who must adhere to strict rules regarding their interaction with the plant and animal life there. One recorded incident with an improperly discarded poop led to a tomato tree sprouting roots that caused a sensation before it was removed.

One of the reasons Surtsey is intriguing is because it has proven that life will explode into being at extremely fast rates. By 1965 plant life was discovered on the island, two years before the violent volcanic eruption that spawned it had even finished expanding it. Flying insects were there even earlier, recorded in 1964, carried by strong winds. Crawling bugs like the aforementioned tree lobsters found their way to the island by the slower method of sea travel. Driftwood took mites and beetles to the island, with one piece of flotsam discovered in the 1970s carrying over 600 invertebrate species alone. By the 80s birds had established nests.

The island of Ailsa Craig off the west coast of Scotland that was once mined for stone is now uninhabited by humans.

The unique stronghold-esque nature of islands would almost suggest a barrier from all but the most hardy travellers (like the stowaway woodworm on-board Noah’s driftwood) or those with the equipment to make the journey (things with wings). Islands are unreachable except by sea or by sky, but life always finds a way to navigate both.

So, of course, the great colonisers (that’s us) got in on the act too. Relatively early in our expansion from Africa, people had more or less mastered methods of travelling by sea. The Polynesian tribes had exploration by water down to an art over 3,000 years ago, and managed to sail to and inhabit present-day Indonesia, the Bismark Archipelago, and even as far adrift as Australia and Tonga long before the Europeans had come close to discovering the immense continent of America.

But human life is still slower to expand than the swift insects, plants and animals. Although the earliest records of human settlement in Europe can be found in Cyprus (buildings from circa 12th Century BC), ideally situated between Africa and Europe, settlement in the remoter Iceland was sparse until the arrival of the Norse in the 9th Century AD. Boats are perfect for long-distance travel, but technology to build faster, larger boats was required for the long-haul journeys that would eventually be taken by European explorers across the globe. Without our home-made driftwood, we might never have reached the shores of the more extremely remote islands such as the Azores in the mid-Atlantic, or Hawaii in the mid-Pacific.

Some legends held that there was land in the sky – islands of heaven floating above us.

And then we found a way to travel by sky. The 20th century developments of first the aeroplane, followed closely by the helicopter, made the possibility of island expansion far easier. Unfortunately, by that stage there are few islands left to populate, with the exception of Surtsey and other volcanic islands that appear from time to time. So we began to build our own, like the man-made crannogs in Dubai or the industrial offshore oil drills dotted around the world.

But the exploration prospects of the technological developments of the twentieth century were not in vain. Without conquering the air we may not have developed the next mode of colonial expansion – the spaceship. Last week’s Mars landing is another chapter in the ongoing process of eventually (presumably) making Mars habitable to support human life. The floating islands of the sky once seemed as impenetrable as the water-locked examples before them must have seemed to unequipped explorers of the past, but decades or centuries from now space-flight to Mars could become more regular and easier to navigate.

Even so, with all our technology, there could still be a trick or two more to learn from the creepy crawlies, as proven by the resilient water bears’ unplanned and incredible journeys into space – hitching a ride on our own metal driftwood. Still, this is the first time we can truly say we are (among) the first earthly creatures to inhabit a wholly uninhabited space.

No matter how insulated, through sea, sky or even space, life on earth is bound to an undefinable desire to explore to the farthest islands we can imagine. And maybe too, that is how we got here in the first place.

A painting from the series “Archipelago”, click for link.

All images in this post are my own and subject to copyright unless stated. I don’t mind reproductions, but please credit them to this blog or contact ( for more information.

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