An unexpected and shocking discovery occurred on April 15th, 2021. On that day it was reported that a mysterious and unknown island had suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the Atlantic Ocean! Speculation ran wild as adventurers, journalists, and scientists flocked to the island that emerged from nowhere.
This happened in 2015. Suddenly, the island that emerged from nowhere was visible. A few months later it was already teeming with species of microbes and plants not yet named by science. They began to refer to it as Hunga Tonga.
The island was a fertile breeding ground for observing how new ecosystems form. Rarely is it possible to analyze this phenomenon from its origins. How did the story of the island that emerged from nothing begin?
It was in the southern Pacific region. A team of researchers took 32 samples at the site. Officially, they named it Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, in honor of the submarine volcano that gave rise to it. It is located 30 kilometers southeast of Fonaufo’ou, one of the most important islands of the Tongan nation.
Microbial ecologist Nick Dragone of the University of Colorado does not deny his amazement. “We thought we would see organisms that are found when a glacier retreats. These are species more typical of early colonizers. But we found a unique group of bacteria that metabolize sulfur and atmospheric gases.”
Even the European Space Agency (ESA) documented the creation of this piece of land. It had remained hidden beneath the seas. Meanwhile, the university team sequenced DNA from samples recovered from the island. With the bird droppings compost, the seeds in the soil quickly flourished.
In areas devoid of vegetation, the researchers found archaeal bacteria. This was not previously recorded. It is not yet known where these microorganisms came from:
“One of the reasons we think we see these unique microbes is because of the properties associated with volcanic eruptions. Lots of sulfur and hydrogen sulfide gas. They fuel the unique taxa we find,” Dragone says.
However, the researchers had little time for further sampling. The eruption of another volcano wiped it out in January 2022. The entire island was wiped out, and disappeared again beneath the waves. Now, only two pieces of land remain in the South Pacific. Almost like tombstones, they remind us of the exact place from where Hunga Tonga emerged.