A team of biologists stumbles upon a two-mile-wide crater on an isolated island, and there they discover a whole new world of unprecedented species, including fanged frogs, giant rats, and tree-climbing kangaroos that evolved in isolation over millions of years. It sounds like the plot of my first thriller, Fragment, but it actually happened only three months after the novel hit the stands. A team of biologists from Oxford University, the London Zoo, and the Smithsonian Institution had journeyed into the wilds of Papua New Guinea and lowered themselves into the unexplored Bosavi crater (exactly the same size as Henders Island's crater in Fragment). At the bottom, almost everything they saw was unknown to science, including new birds of paradise, giant monitor lizards, a new species of bat, and 16 new species of frogs.
As Naturalist Steve Backshall said, "It's very much a sealed ecosystem...The crater walls are near vertical and covered in vegetation so it's a very difficult place to penetrate. It did just feel like entering almost like an island, an island surrounded by sea that allows new species to generate at an increased rate, and inside the volcano surrounded by these precipitous crater walls was very much the same kind of environment...It has created this kind of micro-ecosystem where everything inside is shut off from the outside and so evolves down their own tracks at a kind of exponential rate."
Since Fragment came out, a number of other isolated ecosystems have been discovered as well, each one astonishing scientists with the variety of their unprecedented plants and animals. A decade-long study of Antarctic life concluded after cataloguing 16,000 new species. Over 200 new species were discovered in the Mekong Delta. A different expedition to Papua New Guinea found more than 200 new species in a nearly inaccessible stretch of mountain jungle. New shrimp and jellyfish species were found 600 feet under an ice shelf in Antarctica. Thirty new species were discovered in the mountains of Ecuador. New amphipods were discovered in a New Mexico cave. And the list goes on.
Recently, Brazilian scientist Thomas Lewinsohn speculated that not even 15 percent of the species on earth have been discovered and that it would take some 2,000 more years to catalog them all. It was the extreme diversity of beetles Darwin counted in a single day in the South American jungle — 69! — that helped lead him to the realization that species are evolving, branching into fractal complexity across the world.
We now know that isolated species do not become frozen in time as once imagined in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. Instead, they start adapting and evolving as soon as they are isolated, and the results of this genetic drift grow more astonishing over time. Islands and other isolated environments such as lakes and caves are well-known evolutionary laboratories.
Indeed, every cave we discover holds unique species new to science. In 1985 the Movile Cave in Romania was discovered. The size of a cathedral and filled with a lake covered by a bacterial scum that grows without light, the cave contains 33 unique species that evolved from creatures trapped five million years ago inside the cave. A recently uncovered cave in Israel contains unique shrimps and scorpions that must have evolved since their ancestors were sealed in at the edge of a beach millions of years ago. Elaborate caves recently uncovered in Sequoia National Park have shown 27 new species, some of which evolved to live in only ONE ROOM of the caves. A quarter of a million caves have been documented, and that number grows larger every year. We have explored only a fraction of the subterranean worlds still awaiting us.
So far we have only found caves sealed for five or ten million years. But how old could caves not yet discovered be? The Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains of Australia have recently been dated at 340 million years old, the Carboniferous Period, when huge insects roamed the land and the seas were ruled by giant nautili and the last of the trilobites. What would a sealed cave this old contain today?
The premise of my novels, Fragment and the sequel, Pandemonium, considers what would happen if such biological experiments were given hundreds of millions of years to produce essentially alien ecosystems. What if some of the species that evolved in such exotic ecosystems proved to be as dangerous to our ecosystem as our species usually are to theirs?
Every year alien species invade new territory where they do inestimable damage. The importation of invasive species is arguably the greatest environmental threat we face, though it usually flies under the radar. While such isolations and collisions of landmasses are the story of life on earth, and have layered the biosphere with the mix of life that sustains us today in such rich diversity, the sudden importation of alien species around the globe is something that never occurred before humans acquired global mobility. And while the widespread introduction of alien species causes destruction well within our human time scale, the evolutionary rebound from such invasions as species adapt to fill vacated niches remains well outside our time scale.
So, of course, the craziest thing we could do as human beings would be to use invasive species as weapons of mass destruction. We could, conceivably, turn the world into a wasteland simply by releasing mating pairs of destructive species or letting loose that pet from the pet shop in our own backyards. After researching these two novels, this environmental threat concerns me far more than any other. It is so important to realize that damage done to any part of our planet with this kind of biowarfare is FOREVER. It never stops. For humans, such short-sighted warfare is the equivalent of a circular firing squad. Even if it may take a few generations for the damage to catch up with the perpetrators, it will — it has all the time in the world. When fragments of nature collide, the result is pandemonium.
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Warren Fahy has been a bookseller, editor, and lead writer for Rockstar Games's Red Dead Revolver and WowWee Robotics. He is the author of Fragment (nominated for a BSFA and an International Thriller Award) and other works. He currently resides in San Diego, California.
Books mentioned in this post
Warren Fahy is the author of Pandemonium