Dear Jax,

Animals make their journeys to islands in different ways. Some float. Some fly. Others will swim.

My friend Jonah Piovia-Scott is a scientist at Washington State University. He studies how different living things interact with each other, especially in island habitats. He is really curious about predatory lizards that live on a chain of islands called the Bahamas.

“These lizards can get to islands,” he said. “They can swim, but not very well. They keep themselves afloat.”

Floating is one way animals get to islands. They may float on their own or they may take a kind of raft. This raft is often made up of plants, branches, or other things that blow out into the sea during a storm and are swept together in the ocean.

Flying helps animals like bats and bugs get to islands. Piovia-Scott reminded me that some animals fly for just a small part of their lives, too. Before some ants are fully grown, they go through a stage where they have wings. An ant might find it hard to swim in the ocean. But while it has wings, it can make a flight to a new place.

If animals are light enough, they may get picked up in the wind and sort of drift along. For example, spiders use their silk to catch the wind and move to new locations. Also, a lot of plants get to islands because of the wind. Plant seeds often catch a ride in the air. When they reach the island, they get buried in soil and start to sprout. These plants provide food for many animals.

Finally, there are animals that are just good swimmers, such as seals. They can paddle long distances to an island and some also find a home on the land.

Piovia-Scott explained that animals often take advantage of their new island life. We see these changes in animals such as the marine iguana. Most iguanas we know about only live on the land. But iguanas on the Galapagos Islands dive into water to look for food. They have developed ways to use the resources in and around their island environment.

Another place we see this is in the Pacific Northwest on the San Juan Islands. On these islands, we find raccoons that eat shellfish.

Piovia-Scott said you could probably say the same is true of people who live on islands—they tend to eat a lot of fish. That sounds like my kind of place. I might have to go and explore an island one of these days.

In the meantime, I’m going to see if I can make a flying device and floatation device to learn more about how things travel on water and in the air. You can try it out, too. Tell me about it sometime at

Make a flotation device!

Make a flying device!

Dr. Universe



  • Ask Dr. Universe connects K-8 students with researchers at Washington State University through Q&A. Students can submit science questions on the ASK page.
  • Are you a teacher, parent, or curious grown-up? Follow along on Twitter or Facebook.
  • Do you want to reprint this Q&A? Just send a message to