Alien invasion threatens Antarctic

2012-03-06 11:37

Sydney - In the pristine frozen continent of Antarctica scientists fear an alien invasion - not from outer space, but carried in people's pockets and bags.

Seeds and plants accidentally brought to Antarctica by tourists and scientists may introduce alien plant species which could threaten the survival of native plants in the finely balanced ecosystem.

Invasive alien plants are amongst the most significant conservation threat to Antarctica, especially as climate change warms the ice continent, said a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal published on Tuesday.

More than 33 000 tourists and 7 000 scientists visit Antarctica each year by ship and aircraft, and a two month survey of visitors has found that many are carrying plant seeds picked up from other countries they have already visited.

The study vacuumed travellers' pockets, trouser and sleeve cuffs, shoes and inside their bags, and used tweezers to pry out accidentally hidden seeds. On average each person checked had just 9.5 seeds in clothing and equipment.


"The people that were carrying the most had lots and lots of seeds. They really were substantial threats," said Dana Bergstrom, from the Australian Antarctic Division.

"When we take things in through hitchhiking then we get species which are competitive. The plants and animals there are not necessarily competitive, so there's a good chance... we'd start losing various precious biodiversity on the [Antarctic] continent", Bergstrom said.

Among the alien species discovered were the Iceland Poppy, Tall Fescue Velvet grass and Annual Winter Grass - all from cold climates and capable of growing in Antarctica.

The Antarctic Peninsula, where most tourists travel, is now considered a "hot spot" on the frozen continent and the warmer the climate, the easier for seeds to propagate.

"The peninsula is warming at some of the greatest rates on the planet," said Bergstrom.

The study, the first continent-wide assessment of invasive species in Antarctica, surveyed about 1 000 passengers during 2007 -2008, the first year of the International Polar Year, an international effort to research the polar regions.

It has taken almost three years to identify the seed species and their effects on the icy continent.

Bergstrom said the one alien seed that had gained a foothold is Annual Winter Grass. It is a substantial weed in the sub-Antarctic and is on the Antarctic island of King George. It has also made its way to the tail part of the Antarctic continent.

"That's just one example of the weeds we picked up and a population of it has just been found in the last couple of seasons," she said.

Annual Winter Grass grows very well in disturbed areas like seal and penguin areas, and could propagate amongst the slow growing mosses around those colonies.

"If it got into those areas in the peninsula it would have the potential to overrun things," Bergstrom said.

  • Peter-Peter - 2012-03-06 12:24

    I wont be long before the humans f it up...just like how they f space up with all the debris, screw the oceans with burst oil wells etc. I feel sorry for treasure hunters of the future, there is going to be nothing else left to find.

  • Joe - 2012-03-06 13:30

    People moaning about grass is astonishing as generally speaking grass is a good thing which is more preferable than barren dirt. The Earth is a constantly changing dynamic planet and one thing that we can be sure of is change. Somehow I do not think that trying to keep Antarctica in a glass case is going to work and as to the seeds these can be carried thousands of miles by the wind or birds. I suppose that vacuum cleaning peoples pockets does provide work for Jobsworths but do we really need more Jobsworths? (In my honest opinion Jobsworths are one of the most invasive and pestilential species on the planet)

      Charl Cilliers - 2012-03-06 20:53

      Think before you speak. Alien invasive species - proven to chiefly be introduced by humans - have created havoc the world over. What might seem like barren dirt to you in a place like Antarctica, is how its meant to be. Do a little research, or consult an expert before you embarrass yourself.

      Flamewulf - 2012-03-06 22:30

      Some species of penguin in Antarctica make use of rocks to construct their nests. If alien species of grass take over and hide the rocks from sight, penguins may not be able to spot the rocks and be unable to build their nests, and numbers could drop. This is not wanted at all since global warming could bring their numbers down - we don't need any further potential reductions in population.

      mnbain - 2012-04-25 23:26

      And if the Penguins die cos they can't find rocks... well that's Darwinism for you.

  • Penelope - 2012-03-06 21:22

    Eco-tourism is the fastest growing tourism industry and it is a cause for concern that this may become the biggest threat to ecologically sensitive areas. It took a recent expedition to Antarctica to open my eyes and form my opinion that these areas are best left to scientists and conservationists until heavy regulations are put in place.

  • Russel Mark Hanning - 2012-03-06 22:20

    Its funny to think that religion, which is a primitive belief which has somehow turned to fact and is obscuring the truth being revealed to the uninformed. ? Good thing there is something called "Google"

      Flamewulf - 2012-03-06 22:30

      What does this article have to do with religion?

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