Tsunamis are usually machines of destruction, sweeping in to devastate entire regions and ecosystems. However, in a fascinating twist, the massive Japanese tsunami of 2011 has been discovered to have created a completely new home for over 300 species of invertebrates.

James Carlton, John Chapman and several other scientists have been monitoring the shores of Hawaii and the western coast of America and found that even now, six years after the tsunami, new species native to Japan are being washed up on the shores. The range of species is astonishing—everything from mussels to crabs to starfish have been found living on these new coasts, and there are some species that have never been seen before.

This mass exodus is being attributed to the plastic that we throw into the sea. Species migration is not a new thing, and has been behind the evolution of new species in new environments for millennia, but nothing of this scale has ever been seen. Until this generation, most cross sea migration would occur as animals clung onto wooden debris that was flung across oceans, but wood disintegrates very quickly in water. This would mean that most species wouldn’t make it very far, if at all. Species are now able to use plastic as their rafts—a material notoriously resistant to degradation, meaning that they can actually survive for months, or even years on their journeys across thousands of miles.

Students going for Biology should think about how evasive species can be introduced to new environments, and what the long term outcomes could be for so many new species populating the west coast of America. Students hoping to study Chemistry should look at the bonding in plastics, and why they are so resistant to degrading.  

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