UCSB Science Line
Sponge Spicules Nerve Cells Galaxy Abalone Shell Nickel Succinate X-ray Lens Lupine
UCSB Science Line
How it Works
Ask a Question
Search Topics
Our Scientists
Science Links
Contact Information
I have a few questions regarding the plants and animals on the Channel Islands.

After learning from Dr. Atwater about the geological origin of the islands and their trip up from the San Diego area by way of plate movement I became curious about the Torrey Pine being in both the San Diego area and on Santa Rosa Island.

Does this mean the pines traveled up on the island?
Could this also mean other plants made their way up in the same way?
Are there certain plants that did not exist at that time indicating a trip across the channel the only logical explanation?
Might animals have traveled up on the island the same way or is millions of years too long ago for contemporary animal species?
What animals other than the Pygmy mammoth were once out there but are now no longer around?
We are studying about plant and animal dispersal and the effects of island isolation on these plants and animals and these and other questions arise. We are aware that certain conditions must be present for a plant or animal to establish itself on the island but we would like to know if there is any evidence of species being there but not making it to present day, either due to climatic changes, predation, influence of man, or some other reason.
Any information or direction towards sources would be greatly appreciated.
Question Date: 2005-03-25
Answer 1:

The Channel Islands did not actually become islands (above sea level) until the last million years or so. Before that, the rocks that now make up the islands were still underwater -- think of them as sediments and volcanic deposits traveling along on the sea floor. The area that is now the Transverse Ranges (Santa Monica Hills, SB Hills, and Channel Islands) started to rotate and move away from the rocks that are now San Diego, about 20 million years ago. It was not until this block started to be crushed up onto the CA coast that the islands (and the rocks of the Santa Barbara Hills too, for that matter) began to come above the water level and get folded and broken. The flora and fauna on the islands all arrived there since the rocks came above water level -- when they were very close to their present northward position, so the Torrey Pine did not travel up the coast with the rocks that now make the island, but arrived later by some means that hopefully a biologist can better enlighten you on.

I have heard that island species (like the pygmy mammoths) tend to evolve towards being smaller because of the limited island resources, but beyond that I don't know so much about it.

Answer 2:

Having just taught a section on Evolution in my General Biology class at Hawaii Pacific University, your questions are timely.

First off, land plants appeared on Earth about 470 millions of years ago, and animals moved from the ocean to the land approximately 360 millions of years ago, so it is entirely possible for all of the plants and animals on the Channel Islands to have been living there before they were in fact islands, and before they are where they are now.

That said, before man started moving around in canoes and ships and airplanes, all of the plants and animals present on island chains like Hawaii, which formed in the middle of the Pacific, had to have arrived here by "wind, waves and wing". Same goes for the Galapagos, although those islands are much, much closer to a continent that the Hawaiian Islands.

There are now thousands of native plants on Hawaii, and about half as many on the Galapagos islands. So plants blew to Hawaii on the wind, floated from another island or from the mainland, or hitched a ride on the outside or the inside of birds (many seeds survive and germinate after being eaten). Likewise, animals flew here, or were blown off course, or floated on plant debris, or swam here. It makes sense that in Hawaii we have no native reptiles or amphibians (these species don't swim well) and the only native mammals either fly (one species of bat) or swim (several species of marine mammals). So it is also possible that the plants and animals migrated or dispersed out to the Channel Islands from the "mainland" (the coast), and continue to do so today. In addition, new species can evolve from the original species that first colonized the islands.

In Hawaii, we have over 50 species of Hawaiian Honeycreepers, forest birds that are thought to have evolved from one original species that landed here millions of years ago. Hawaiian Honeycreepers are found only in Hawaii and nowhere else.

Lastly, man is famous for introducing species into environments that they would have never found on their own. The early settlers of Hawaii probably came from Tahiti, and brought with them over 30 species of plants, and a couple species of animals (dogs, pigs, and probably rats). All in sailing canoes, and without the aid of a metal compass! These plants provided food in case the new islands did not have enough to survive on, raw materials for building new canoes and "houses", and medicine.

Today, humans introduce thousands of new species either on purpose or by accident. This has threatened the survival of many native species, especially on islands, since the introduced species are not introduced with their predators and diseases. Soon our native forests and forest birds may be gone because of these and other introduced species.

Most of the 50 or so species of Hawaiian Honeycreepers are endangered, and many have already gone extinct since Captain Cook first visited the islands in the 1700's.

I know for a fact that the Santa Catalina Island fox is endemic to the Channel Islands, which means that it evolved into a new species once on the island, and this species is found nowhere else. The original fox species (probably a Gray fox) could have swum to the island from the mainland, or lived in the region before the islands became separated from the mainland.

According to some information I have, it's early ancestors arrived at the islands about 15,000 years ago, which isn't too long ago, so the early foxes probably swam or rafted out to the islands, and weren't transported there. It is now endangered.

As for the Torrey Pines, since they occur naturally in only two spots (San Diego County and Santa Rosa Island), this implies to me that Santa Rosa Island must have been in contact with or very near the region of the coast where the San Diego Torrey Pines are presently located. If the pines are able to disperse long distances, you would expect to see them on other islands, especially Catalina, which is farther south. It is possible that the pines were more widespread on the mainland and made it out to more than one island and what we are seeing today is just two remnant forests.

I'd have to know more about the biology of the tree and its fossil record. Pollen tends to preserve well in the fossil record (or better than most other plant parts), so that's one way scientists would be able to determine the past distributions of Torrey Pines.

As for other plants and animals, since these groups have been around on Earth for >300 million years, it is hard to say whether certain species traveled up on the islands from their original location, or migrated out to the islands once the islands began to move. One way biologists can tell this is to look for fossils on the islands.

Click Here to return to the search form.

University of California, Santa Barbara Materials Research Laboratory National Science Foundation
This program is co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and UCSB School-University Partnerships
Copyright © 2020 The Regents of the University of California,
All Rights Reserved.
UCSB Terms of Use