Scientists Sound Alarm on Invasive Species in Antarctica

(CN) – As tourism and scientific research grows in the Antarctic Peninsula, researchers revealed Monday a host of non-native species likely to invade the Antarctic Peninsula and create new problems amid an already fragile ecosystem.

In a study published in the journal Global Change Biology, scientists identified 13 out of 103 species most likely to invade the Antarctic Peninsula. Researchers have already documented the devastating effects in other polar areas where it has already happened.

Kevin Hughes, an environmental researcher at British Antarctic Survey, said in a statement that increased human traffic to the peninsula inadvertently brings these new species to the area.

“The Antarctica Peninsula region is by far the busiest and most visited part of Antarctica due to growing tourism and scientific research activities,” Hughes said. “Non-native species can be transported to Antarctica by many different means. Visitors can carry seeds and non-sterile soil attached to their clothing and footwear.”

“Imported cargo, vehicles and fresh food supplies can hide species, including insects, plants and even rats and mice. Marine species present a particular problem as they can be transported to Antarctica attached to ship hulls. They can be very difficult to remove once established,” he added.

Mussels are listed in the top 13 non-native species that could invade the Antarctic Peninsula. (Photo courtesy of David Barnes)

David Barnes, BAS marine biologist and study co-author said that while non-native animals are a concern, plant life can also negatively affect the peninsula.

“Marine invertebrates such as mussels and crabs are top of the list of species considered most likely to invade the Antarctic Peninsula region, but flowering plants such as button weeds and mites and springtails were also identified,” he said. “We know mussels can survive in polar waters and can spread easily. When they establish, they can dominate life by smothering the native marine animals that live on the seabed.”

The scientists noted that sub-Antarctic islands Marion Island and South Georgia are already facing an invasion of rats, but they said the Antarctic Peninsula will probably not have to worry about rodents for a while.

“We think the conditions in the Antarctic Peninsula region will remain too extreme to allow rodents to colonize outside. However, rats and mice could survive by hiding within research station buildings, so everyone needs to remain vigilant for droppings and gnaw marks,” said Helen Roy, an ecologist at the U.K. Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

Roy said comprehensive biosecurity checks are needed to make sure visitors to the most southern parts of Earth aren’t bringing anything with them.

“Only then will we be able to reduce the risks and protect these amazing, but vulnerable Antarctic communities from the threat of invasive non-native species,” she said.

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