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The Lost World of Socotra: The Most Alien-Looking Place on Earth

Thursday, September 7, 2017 23:27
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The landscape of the remote island of Socotra looks so foreign that it could almost pass as an alien planet. Its native flora is so rare and unique that the island looks like something out of a science-fiction movie. But Socotra is very real, and is home to over 1,000 unique species of fauna and 825 rare species of flora, including varieties of plants that have been on earth for over 20 million years.

Desert Rose Bottle Tree, Socotra Island ( CC by SA 2.0 )

Desert Rose Bottle Tree, Socotra Island ( CC by SA 2.0 )

Socotra is part of an archipelago of four islands in the Indian Ocean about 250 km (155 miles) off the coast of Somalia and 340km (210 miles) from Yemen. It is one of the most isolated landforms on Earth that was once part of a continent, having split from the supercontinent of Gondwana over 6 million years ago.

“This has given evolution plenty of time to chart its own course without any influence from most common species found on continental land masses,” reports ViralForest. “It’s the closest thing you’ll get to a real look at how life might evolve on an Alien world similar to our own.”

The long geological isolation of the Socotra archipelago and its hot and dry climate have combined to create a spectacular landscape with white sandy beaches that rise to limestone plateaus full of caves, and a rare, endemic flora.

The island was given UNESCO’s global recognition for its ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ due to its incredible biodiversity: 37% of Socotra’s 825 plant species, 90% of its reptile species and 95% of its land snail species do not occur anywhere else in the world.

Dragon's Blood Tree, Socotra Island ( Rod Waddington / Flickr )

Dragon’s Blood Tree, Socotra Island ( Rod Waddington / Flickr )

One of the most striking of Socotra’s plants is the dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari), which is a strange-looking, umbrella-shaped tree. Its red sap was thought to be the dragon’s blood of the ancients and was once used in medieval magic. The blood-coloured resin was also used as a dye, and today as paint and varnish. Also important in ancient times were Socotra’s various endemic aloes, used medicinally, and for cosmetics.

ocotra Dragon Trees (Dracaena cinnabari), Diksam Plateau ( Dan / Flickr )

Socotra Dragon Trees (Dracaena cinnabari), Diksam Plateau ( Dan / Flickr )

The remote island of Socotra, whose name is thought to come from the Sanskrit for ‘blissful island’, is home to nearly 50,000 inhabitants, most of whom speak the unique Soqotri language, spoken only in Socotra. The indigenous inhabitants are mainly of Southern Arabian descent and there are also a number of residents of Somali and Indian origin. Several of the female lineages on the island are found nowhere else on earth.

Socotra appears in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a 1 st century AD Greek navigation aid. A recent discovery of texts in several languages, including a wooden tablet in Palmyrene dated to the 3rd century AD, indicate the diverse origins of those who used Socotra as a trading base in antiquity. Ancient graffiti dating back over two millennia reveals that sailors had visited the island between the 1 st century BC and the 6th century AD.


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