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As the world warms and human activity increases, more invasive species threaten Antarctica’s fragile ecosystems.
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As the world warms and human activity increases, more invasive species threaten Antarctica’s fragile ecosystems.

Invasive species are threatening Antarctica's fragile ecosystems as human activity grows and the world warms


We tend to think Antarctica is isolated and far away – biologically speaking, this is true. The continent is busier than most people realize, with many national programs and tour operators traversing the globe to get there.

Every vessel, every cargo item, and every person could be harboring non-native animals, hitchhiking their ways south. This threat to Antarctica’s fragile ecosystem is what our new evaluationToday’s release, focuses on.

We mapped five years worth of ships and planes visiting Antarctica. This helped us see the extent of travel across the hemispheres, and also the potential source locations of non-native species. The map below is an example. We discovered that while some have crossed Antarctica, most have not yet managed to hold the continent, which is a good thing as it leaves the continent relatively intact.

Antarctica is growing busier thanks to new research stations rebuilding more tourism activities planned. It is our challenge to keep it pristine in the face of climate change and increasing human activity.

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Life evolved in isolation

Biodiversity-wise, most of the planet is mixed. The scientific term is homogenizationThis is where species such as pests, weeds and diseases are introduced to another place and established. This allows them to reproduce and affect the ecosystem, often to the disadvantage of the locals.

The majority of Antarctica’s life is found on tiny, ice-free coastal fringes. where most research stationsShips and people are.

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This includes unique animals (think Adélie penguins, Weddell seals and snow petrels), mosses and lichens that harbour tiny invertebrates (such as mites, waterbears and springtails), and an array of microbes such as cyanobacteria. The adjacent coastOcean team with life, too.

The more we know about them, the more amazing life at the ends of the planetary spectrum becomes. Recent scientific discoveries were made this week that some Antarctic bacteria live on airUsing hydrogen as a fuel, they can make their own water.

Weddell seal

The Antarctic Weddell seal, an endemic species, rests on sea ice.

Natural barriers were formed between the Southern Ocean and the rest of world 30 million years after it was formed. This includes the Antarctic Circumpolar CurrentThe strongest ocean current on the planet is the, with its strong westerly surface winds, ocean temperatures, and icy air.

Antarctica is unique in that it has a unique fauna and flora that can withstand the harshest conditions. But the simplicity of Antarctica’s food webs can often mean there are gaps in the ecosystem that other species from around the world can fill.

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Routine biosecurity surveillance began in May 2014, detected non-native springtails(tiny, insect-like invertebrates) in a hydroponic installation at an Australian Antarctic station.

This station, an oasis of ice, had previously been free from these interlopers and they had the potential for permanent damage to the fragile local ecosystem. They were successfully eliminated by a swift and effective response.

Penguin sitting on moss

Gentoo penguin, Antarctica, on a bed made of algae

Climate change is increasing the pressures on Antarctica. This is because climate change is bringing more wildlife-rich areas tolerable temperatures.

New areas are exposed as glaciers melt, which allows non-Antarctic species to thrive. greater opportunity to establishLocals may be outcompeted for resources such as nutrients or precious, ice-free spaces.

So far, we’ve been lucky

Our past research focused on non-native propagules – things that propagate like microbes, viruses, seeds, spores, insects and pregnant rats – and how they entrain themselves into Antarctica.

They can be easily caught on people’s clothing and equipment, in fresh food, cargo and machinery. In fact, research from the last decade found that visitors who hadn’t cleaned their clothing and equipment carried on average nine seeds each.

How non-native species get to Antarctica
Pathways for non-native species
Dana M Bergstrom

Despite their best efforts, Antarctica has seen very few non-native species.

To date, only 11 non-native invertebrate species – including springtails, mites, a midge and an earthworm – have established across a range of locations in the warmer parts of Antarctica, including Signy Island and the Antarctic Peninsula. In the marine realm, some non-native species have been seen but it’s thought none have survived and established.

Microbes are another matter. Each visitorMillions of microbes travel to Antarctica every year. Many of these microbes are then left behind. Near most research stations, sewage-borne microbes have mixed with native microbes, resulting in the exchange of antibiotic resistance genes.

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Last year, for example, a rare harmful bacteria, pathogenic to both humans and birds, was detected in guano (poo) from both Adélie and gentoo penguin colonies at sites with high rates of human visitors. COVID-19 also reached Antarctica last year.

Both these cases risk so-called “reverse zoonosis”, where humans spread disease to local wildlife.

Antarctica’s coral reefs? Polychete colonies, which are found in shallow water, form fragile reefs that serve as marine animal forests and host a diverse and rich community of animals and plants.
Jonny Stark/ AAD

What can we do?

Three factors have helped maintain Antarctica’s near-pristine status: the physical isolation, cold conditions and co-operation between nations through the Antarctic Treaty. The Environmental Protocol is a part of the Treaty that aims to prevent and address threats and pressures to Antarctica.

The Antarctic Treaty countries have a unanimous commitment to preventing the establishment non-native species. This includes adopting a science based, non-native species manualThis guide provides guidance on how to prevent, monitor and respond to non-native species.

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But time is of the essence. As we continue to protect Antarctica from non-native species, it is important to be prepared for their inevitable arrival. One way is to adapt the newly developed 3As approach to environmental management: Awareness of values, Anticipation and Response to Pressures

This means monitoring is intensified and predictions are taken into consideration non-native species could sneak through biosecuritySet up new conditions, and prepare pre-determined response plans to be able to quickly respond to changes.


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