500 Years on a Tropic Island in 500 Words or Less
As I begin my expedition on Fernando de Noronha it becomes increasingly clear how the biological history of the island and the introduced species I am here to study are tightly intertwined with the human history of the island.
Fernando de Noronha is an oceanic island of volcanic origin, never connected to any continent, nor inhabited by people.
It was first discovered in 1503 by Amerigo Vespucci who noted in a letter home the presence of “very large rats.” On a National Geographic grant in 1973, Smithsonian curator Storrs Olson confirmed the fossil presence of such a giant rat which he named Vespucci’s rat (Noronhomys vespuccii), and which went extinct rapidly following human colonization.
The island subsequently passed hands between the Dutch and French and finally back to the Portuguese where it remained until Brazil’s independence. Remains of forts from throughout this era are found across the island.
For much of its history the island was a dreaded penal colony, and it was at this time that the forest across the entire island was regularly burnt off. The plants present today include a mix of regenerating natives but also invasive plants such as Leucaena leucocephala and Lantana camara.