Norfolk Island is remote, really remote. I don’t why I didn’t realise how far away it was, I’d always kind of ‘partnered’ it with Lord Howe Island and figured it was close. It isn’t. It’s nearly twice as far away from Australia. The nearest land mass is New Caledonia, and it sits 1412km from the east coast of Australia, roughly on the same line of latitude as Byron Bay.
It emerges from an oceanic ridge that stretches from New Zealand to New Caledonia, the island having risen through volcanic activity about 3 million years ago. As sea levels have gone up and down the size of Norfolk Island has varied, but at its biggest it joined with Phillip Island to create and land mass more than 100km long.
Its fauna and flora has influences of all three of its key neighbours – Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia – and has arisen in splendid isolation. It was not Europeans who first created human impact on the island, but Polynesians as they spread through the South Pacific about 1000 years ago. The hunting and the introduction of the Polynesian Rat would have had devastating impacts on the fauna of the island at the time and we simply don’t know what disappeared during the period of occupation. By the time Cook arrived in 1774 the Polynesians were gone, but the rat, and their bananas, gave indications of their presence.
The various European settlements of the island are complex and well beyond the scope of this blog, the island has a fascinating history. Several of the species that survived the Polynesian settlement did not last long once the next wave arrived, with several bird species becoming extinct soon after European arrival, mostly through hunting. Another wave of extinctions occurred in the 20th century through vegetation clearing during and after the Second World War, and the introduction of the Black Rat, believed to be in the 1940’s. Species persist however, a plant thought extinct was rediscovered as rabbits were removed from Phillip Island in the 1980’s and for a surprisingly large number of species, we just don’t know if they’re native or not. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter?
The island is now home to a fascinating mixture of endemic and endangered species. Despite only being just under 3500ha, Norfolk Island is home to 58 threatened species (46 plants, 5 birds, 5 land snails and two reptiles) including an extraordinary 20 critically endangered species (15 plants and the 5 land snails). All this makes Norfolk Island one of the most important conservation hot spots on the planet and a thoroughly interesting place in which to delve into the natural history.