Even Tiny Things Can Have Devastating Effect When Moving from One Ecosystem to the Next

This new research from the British Antarctic Survey is an important reminder for sailors that want to travel to the antarctic or really from any place to a new ecosystem. It is incredible just how much we can “pick-up” in one area of the world and what a devastating effect and can have in another place.

Because of its hostile climate and remote location, Antarctica is one of the most pristine environments on Earth. But the icy continent is playing host to ever-increasing numbers of scientists and tourists, and a new study finds that these visitors are bringing some unintended baggage: the seeds of potentially invasive plants. Climate change is projected to render the frigid continent more hospitable to such plants in coming decades, says the study’s lead author, Steven Chown, an environmental scientist at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

Recently, Chown and his colleagues conducted the first continent-wide assessment of the risk of invasive plants. In late 2007 and early 2008, the researchers inspected the travel gear of more than 850 scientists, tourists, support personnel, and ships’ crew (with their permission). That’s approximately 2% of Antarctic visitors during that period, Chown notes. Using vacuum cleaners at the visitors’ first stop on the continent, they collected almost 2700 seeds from equipment including outerwear, footwear, day packs, and camera bags.

Although about 20% of tourists had unwittingly carried seeds to Antarctica, more than 40% of the scientists and support personnel at research stations had brought botanical stowaways—and more than half of the scientists doing field research and tourist support personnel, such as tour guides, harbored hitchhikers. Overall, the researchers estimate that all visitors to Antarctica that field season brought about 71,000 seeds. On average, each seed-bearing visitor carried more than nine seeds, Chown and his colleagues reported earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Analyses of the types of seeds gathered, together with information from questionnaires about the visitors’ travel habits in the year before their Antarctic visit, suggest that between 50% and 60% of the seeds reaching Antarctica arrived from areas with similarly cold climates—and therefore pose a threat of gaining a foothold. By 2100, climate change could dramatically boost the risk of nonnative species becoming established, especially along the western Antarctic Peninsula and in ice-free coastal areas west of the Amery Ice Shelf and along the western Ross Sea, the researchers estimate.

For the complete story, go to www.wired.com.

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