Saturday, April 30, 2011

Antarctica threatened by invasion of alien species

Wynne Parry in Live Science: It's unforgivingly cold and isolated, but stowaways are arriving in Antarctica in a steady stream. Seeds, fungi and insects go where people -- in this case researchers and tourists -- take them. These arrivals all create the potential for invasive species to establish themselves in the world's most pristine continent and its islands.

"We are still at the stage when Antarctica has fewer than 10 non-native species, none of which have become invasive," said Kevin Hughes, an environmental scientist with the British Antarctic Survey. "Unless we take steps now to minimize the risk of introduction, who knows what will happen."

…Hughes and other researchers have set out to determine just what is being carried unintentionally into some of the international research stations in the Antarctic. In one study, he and others examined more than 11,250 pieces of fresh produce arriving at nine research stations in the Antarctic and the sub-Antarctic islands located farther north in the Southern Ocean to see what came along with it.

The produce, which included everything from apples to pawpaw trees to turnips, was shipped from around the world. Its stowaways were similarly diverse, and included at least 56 invertebrates -- slugs, butterflies, aphids and so on. Twelve percent of the produce carried soil, and 28 percent had rot caused by microbial infection. [Taking a Bite Out of Invasive Species]

"Are these numbers surprising, or does it mean this is likely to be a problem? It’s pretty hard to say," said Daniel Simberloff, a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who was not involved with the research. "The upshot is that there's just enough people going to some parts of Antarctica nowadays that lots of organisms are carried there. I have to think this isn't good, and some subset of them are going to pose environmental problems."…

Photograph by: Kristan Hutchison, National Science Foundation, of McKelvey Valley, located in Victoria Land, Antarctica

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