CM – Invasive species threaten Antarctica’s fragile ecosystems as human activity increases and the world warms

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As glaciers melt, new areas are exposed, giving non-Antarctic species more opportunities to establish locals and potentially to surpass resources like nutrients and valuable ice-free space

Published: November 20, 2021 13:06 |

Last updated: November 20, 2021 1:06 PM

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In this undated file photo, a lone penguin appears during the summer season in the southern hemisphere in Antarctica. (Photo | AP)

We tend to think that Antarctica is isolated and far away – biologically it’s true. But the continent is busier than you might imagine, with lots of national programs and tour operators around travel the globe to get there.

And every ship, piece of cargo, and person could harbor non-native species and hitchhike south. Our new assessment published today deals with this threat to the fragile ecosystem of Antarctica.

We mapped the last five years in which planes and ships have visited the continent and, for the first time, shed light on the extent of travel across the hemispheres and the potential source locations for alien species, as shown in the map below. We found that although some have breached Antarctica, they generally haven’t had a stranglehold, so the continent is still relatively unspoiled.

But Antarctica is getting busier, with new research stations, reconstruction and other tourism activities. Our challenge is to keep it untouched amid this growing human activity and the threat of climate change.

In terms of biodiversity, much of the planet is in disarray. The scientific term is homogenization, in which species such as weeds, pests and diseases are transported from one place to another and settled there. This means that they begin to reproduce and affect the ecosystem, often to the detriment of the local population.

Most of life in Antarctica is trapped in tiny ice-free strips of coast, and this is where most of the research stations, ships, and people are located .

These include unique animals (think Adelie penguins, Weddell seals, and snow petrels), mosses and lichens that harbor tiny invertebrates (like mites, water bears, and springtails), and a range of microbes like cyanobacteria. The adjacent coast and the sea also combine with life.

The more we learn about them, the more outstanding life becomes at the end of the planetary spectrum. Just this week, new scientific discoveries revealed that some Antarctic bacteria live on the air and make their own water using hydrogen as fuel.

When the Southern Ocean formed about 30 million years ago, natural barriers were created with the rest of the world World created. These include the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the strongest ocean current on the planet, and the associated strong western surface winds, icy air and ocean temperatures.

This means that life in Antarctica developed in isolation, with flora and fauna that usually doesn’t exist anywhere else and can cope with icy conditions. But the simplicity of Antarctica’s food webs can often mean that there are gaps in the ecosystem that other species from around the world can fill. Discovered in a hydroponic facility at an Australian Antarctic station.

This station, an ice-free oasis, was previously missing these intruders, and they had the potential to permanently change the local fragile ecosystem. Fortunately, a quick and effective response has successfully eradicated them.

The pressures of climate change exacerbate the challenges of human activities in Antarctica as climate change brings milder conditions to these wilderness areas, both on land and at sea.

As glaciers melt, new areas are exposed, giving non-Antarctic species more opportunities to establish locals and possibly to displace resources such as nutrients and valuable, ice-free space.

Our previous research has focused on non- native forms of spread – things that spread like microbes, viruses, seeds, spores, insects, and pregnant rats – and how they introduce themselves into Antarctica.

They can easily get on people’s clothes and equipment, in fresh food, Cargo and machinery get caught. In fact, research over the past decade has shown that visitors who haven’t cleaned their clothes and equipment carried an average of nine seeds each.

To date, only 11 non-native invertebrates have survived – including springtails, mites, one Mosquito and an earthworm – established in various locations in the warmer parts of Antarctica, including Signy Island and the Antarctic Peninsula. Some alien species have been seen in the marine area, but none are believed to have survived and established.

Microbes are a different matter. Every visitor to Antarctica carries millions of microbial passengers with them, and many of these microbes are left behind. At most research stations, human gut microbes from sewage have mixed with native microbes, including the exchange of antibiotic resistance genes.

For example, a rare harmful bacterium was detected in the guano (poo) of Adelia and Gentoo penguin colonies in high-visitor locations last year which is pathogenic to both humans and birds. COVID-19 also found its way to Antarctica last December.

In both cases, there is a risk of what is known as « reverse zoonosis », in which humans transmit diseases to local wildlife.
Coral reefs in Antarctica? Extensive polychete colonies of shallow water form fragile reefs that act as marine animal forests and host a diverse and abundant community of flora and fauna.

Three factors have helped maintain Antarctica’s near-pristine status: the physical isolation, the cold conditions and cooperation between nations through the Antarctic Treaty. The treaty is underpinned by the Environmental Protocol, which aims to prevent and respond to threats and pressures on the continent.

The states of the Antarctic Treaty are unanimously committed to preventing the colonization of non-native species. This includes the adoption of a science-based handbook for alien species that provides guidance on preventing, monitoring and responding to the introduction of alien species.

But time is of the essence. We need to better prepare for the inevitable arrivals of non-native species to prevent their establishment while we continue to break through the barriers protecting Antarctica. One approach is to tailor the newly developed 3As approach to environmental management: awareness of values, anticipation of pressures, measures to contain the pressures.

This means intensifying monitoring, taking into account predictions about which non-native species are could sneak through biosecurity and establish themselves in new conditions, and prepare pre-established response plans to act quickly if they do.

Dana M. Bergstrom is a Principal Research Scientist at the University of Wollongong, Shavawn Donoghue works as Adjunct Researcher at the University of Tasmania.

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. You can read the original article here.

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