Ascension Island, a British overseas territory in the south Atlantic, was originally a nearly-lifeless, uninhabited rock. It had no freshwater except for rainfall which quickly evaporated. But in an experiment, Charles Darwin and his friend Joseph Hooker introduced non-native plants that they hoped would encourage water retention. The result is that today Ascension Island has lush, vibrant forests.
The idea was breathtakingly simple. The trees would capture sea mist and moisture from passing clouds, collect rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils.
"I remember thinking, this is really weird," he told the BBC. "There were all kinds of plants that don't belong together in nature, growing side by side. I only later found out about Darwin, Hooker and everything that had happened," he said.
Dr Wilkinson exclaimed: "This is really exciting! What it tells us is that we can build a fully functioning ecosystem through a series of chance accidents or trial and error."