An underwater volcano burped up a land mass near Tonga about four years ago, and NASA researchers who visited the new island for the first time got a surprise. The South Pacific island informally called Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai has "very sticky" clay mud, says scientist Dan Slayback in a NASA blog post about the October visit. "I'm still a little baffled of where it's coming from," he says. "Because it's not ash." The scientists, who had previously studied the island only through satellite imagery, also discovered plenty of vegetation and a decent population of birds (including a barn owl), reports the Guardian. Those two things are easier to explain: The birds likely came from nearby islands, and they probably dropped seeds while flying.
"It's not at all surprising that there's vegetation growing actually," volcanologist Jess Phoenix tells the BBC. "It's likely that it was transported by animals—most likely through bird droppings—and volcanic land is pretty fertile." It's not unusual for undersea volcanoes to create small islands, but they typically disappear in a matter of weeks or months. This new island is unusual in its longevity: Only two other islands that have "erupted" over the last century-and-a-half have survived more than a few months. NASA had previously estimated the island might stick around for as long as 30 years, per CNN, but that estimate might change after the human visit. "The island is eroding by rainfall much more quickly than I'd imagined," says Slayback. (The island could give scientists an insight into Mars.)