The Antarctica Files: Invasive species

Posted on: January 11, 2011 12:00 PM, by ERV:

Before were allowed to do ANYTHING on Antarctica, we had a lecture on what we could and could not do while we were visiting. Even though everyone was ecologically conscientious, there were tons of things we had to do that none of us would have thought of on our own. We had to vacuum our jackets/pants/hats/bags/etc, so we wouldnt accidentally introduce an invasive plant or other organism. We had to decon our boots before and after every outing, so we wouldnt contaminate an island then spread that contamination everywhere.

Either everyone is not that careful, or our efforts are not good enough, because...

Continent-wide risk assessment for the establishment of nonindigenous species in Antarctica

One of the very, very odd things about visiting Antarctica is that there were no terrestrial plants. There was nothing green. No grass, no plants, no trees. So, seeds from a plant from a cold climate, combined with global warming induced milder temperatures in Antarctica, combined with *zero* competition from local flora (cause their aint any), is a recipe for an invasive species disaster.

So this group of folks wanted to get a feel of how close we are to setting this powder keg off. From 2007 to 2008, scientists sampled the gear of everyone traveling to Antarctica for seeds/spores/etc. I think what they found is scientific support for the idea of people getting lazy when they do the same procedures over and over, because the tourists (who in my experience had traveled ALL OVER THE PLACE before making it to Antarctica) were at ~20% 'seed positive', with ~5 seeds per seed carrier.

The scientists, on the other hand, were a mess. ~50% of field scientists and ~40% of station scientists were 'seed positive', with 10-20 (but up to ~50!) seeds per carrier. And the tour operators are not much better, with ~50% 'seed positive' but only ~5 seeds per carrier.

The tourists are super neurotic about cleaning their gear, whereas the scientists and tour operators are like 'Meh, good enough'... when it is not.

Furthermore while a dropped acorn might have little chance of gaining a foothold in Antarctica, this group of scientists categorized seeds by their theoretical ability to thrive-- Seeds from plants in the Arctic or sub-Antarctic might have a shot in hell. Of the seeds they found, there were over three dozen different species from 'cold' climates. Cold in Antarctica? Who cares, its cold in the Arctic too-- those plants wont care.

The lesson is, everyone has to be constantly vigilant-- Antarctica, like the rest of the planet, is getting warmer. And, tourist spots and science stations are mostly in the milder regions of Antarctica, like the Antarctic Peninsula (where I visited). The scientists on this paper calculated the risk of an invasive species taking hold in various regions of Antarctica, and the Peninsula is one big red block of DANGER.

Scientists and visitors to the DANGER regions need to be beyond neurotic about avoiding contamination, and even being neurotic is super easy-- Most of the seeds were found in backpacks and shoes. Dont take a bag on-land (I never did) if you are a tourist, and wash/vacuum the hell out of every corner of your bag if you are a scientist that needs it. Use the ship provided shoes and properly decon them before/after every land trip if you are a tourist, and again, be super careful vacuuming and deconing your own shoes if you are a visiting/station scientist.

Its not that we cant go to Antarctica anymore without risking ruining it-- we just need to be even more careful.


More like this

â .. satellite
tracks of seabirds (38) that are considered important natural dispersal agents (39), ..â

OK I see that they're not attempting a King Canute over this natural sequence, just don't want the the study of how it happens disrupted by wildly out-of-area stuff leapfrogging in ahead, on its bipedal mules, like the lawn grass that's already got a grip in parts. Fair enough.

All it would take is some storm-blown passerine or the like from Patagonia carking it in among all that lovely penguin guano and rock flour.
But that ticks the "natural" box. Job done!

Wonder what might happen for instance when the gut contents and poop of Cap'n Scott and Shackleton's ponies and the like thaw out?
(A long time from now, one would hope).

By dustbubble (not verified) on 06 Mar 2012 #permalink

Wouldn't invasive suggest there was actually something to invade, shouldn't there be something going on the same biological level already?
Since when does colonisation equal invasion?

By informania (not verified) on 06 Mar 2012 #permalink

Come to think of it; it's almost, sort of, -implicitly- a right-wing stance

By informania (not verified) on 06 Mar 2012 #permalink

I agree, the idea you can "protect" an environment from natural colonization if suitable conditions exist is laughable. The fact that nothing grows there is proof that it's not suitable - and if global warming warms the area seeds will find their way there. If sand from the Gobi can cross the Pacific to be detectable in the US, seeds will make it to Antarctica, in much larger numbers than anything you see on a tourist.
Now, polar bears I agree don't fly all that well, those would be pretty invasive if one happens to have on in his pocket.

That might address the macrofauna, but I'll bet it's already too late for the microfauna. Has anyone looked at bacteria populations near the large facilities? Even if they trucked every bit of trash/sewage out, how about hair or skin particles? I am reminded of the science fiction story about an expedition to the highest point on Venus, where a lifeform is found surviving in the "cool" environment, that then manages to get into a bag of trash left behind by the human team, releasing the bacteria stored within.

By Richard Hendricks (not verified) on 06 Mar 2012 #permalink

I'm sorry, but if there are no native plant species, then it's simply impossible, by definition, for any other plant species to be classified as invasive.

Moreover, the term is not a synonym for non-native. Even in established ecologies, not every non-native species is considered invasive. There has to be a disruptive effect to already established organisms. And if there are no established organisms, they can hardly be disrupted.

While as a botanist I do agree that the transport of species between continents is a huge problem - we risk that in the end all countries of the same climate look exactly alike with a few highly competitive species spread all over the place and everything else extinct - I also have a problem with the idea that we should freeze (no pun intended) everything in place in the face of a changing climate.

When Antarctica gets warmer, then plants will colonize it, and that might even be welcomed, as they may become unable to live in the (now also warmer) places where they lived before, driven out by plants in turn driven out elsewhere. Planet gets warmer, everything needs to move towards the poles and up the mountains; planet gets colder, everything needs to move towards the equator and down the mountains. There are only two problems: what if you reach the end of the ladder and fall off, and the fact that we humans have fragmented natural habitats to such a great degree that most animals or plants will not be able to migrate properly.

By the way, if I remember correctly, there are three native vascular plant species in Antarctica. Cushion plants, at least one of them an Apiaceae, and probably confined to the most protected places in one part of the continent only. Don't know where I picked up that piece of information, though. And then of course there is a limited native flora of lichens and mosses.

Yup, as it appears from the PNAS thing, the real concern is avoiding an Australia+rabbit-type woopsie.

â"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 told Reuters

By dustbubble (not verified) on 07 Mar 2012 #permalink

.. and cane toads. And Japanese knotweed. And rhododendrons. And grey squirrels ...

By dustbubble (not verified) on 07 Mar 2012 #permalink

So, seeds from a plant from a cold climate, combined with global warming induced milder temperatures in Antarctica, combined with *zero* competition from local flora (cause their aint any), is a recipe for an invasive species disaster.

Its not that we cant go to Antarctica anymore without risking ruining it

Just like the Hawaiian archipelago was ruined by all those nasty plants that somehow migrated to its shores prior to colonization by the Polynesians. Surely pristine bare volcanic rock is preferable to tropical flora. That there are any plants at all growing anywhere on the archipelago certainty is a disaster of major proportions.

I can assure everyone that global warming is a many orders of magnitude bigger problem than some grass on the tundra. In fact, I'll make the case that having a nicely terraformed Antarctica will be a major win for humanity when the equatorial regions become too hot to be habitable.

I'm a pretty hardcore conservationist and even I think this is a bit of a reach.

And as mentioned, 'invasive' is usually used with the indication of an adverse effect:

We have deserts all over the world and this is the first time I've heard of any of them being 'threatened' by an invasive species.

Yeti @ 12:â.. having a nicely terraformed Antarctica will be a major win for humanity when the equatorial regions become too hot to be habitable.â
Well up to a point, Lord Copper. It'll be either be a dubious and mostly pitch-dark "win" for a small proportion of people (and other critters/plants etc.), or a bloody tight squeeze for all those displaced by equatorial types shoving up and down towards the poles.
On account of the pointy ends of the map being a heck of a lot smaller in area than the fat bit round the middle of the planet. Even though most of that is ocean. Much like a melty Arctic would be.
Can't see agriculture having much future in a months-long polar night, no matter how toasty it is.

By dustbowlbubble (not verified) on 07 Mar 2012 #permalink

There are apparently two native vascular plants there already: Deschampsia antarctica and Colobanthus quitensis. I thought there was a sedge too, but can't immediately find support for that idea.

In the non-vascular department, there are a bunch of lichens and a number of mosses too.

It will be interesting to see if additional vascular plant species arrive, one way or the other.

By Achrachno (not verified) on 08 Mar 2012 #permalink

I'm not sure about the idea of not contaminating a completely sterile environment with living organisms. If there is nothing there to be displaced then what is the problem with seeding green plants. It's not as if an alien species is going to take over and destroy the native flora and fauna, there aren't any.

By Archie1954 (not verified) on 08 Mar 2012 #permalink

@ 15 Yeti: Quite the little ray of sunshine, ain't we?
Anyway we already got that. I think they make mobile phones and computery bits in 'em.

I can't think of a single instance in the past where systemic crises have been rationally engineered away (apart from the Chinese 1-child policy, which wasn't).
Far easier to invoke the traditional methods, in the form of the good ole Four Horsemen.

Mainly because they're relatively cheap and effortless, and humanity is nothing if not lazy, and a bit thick.

By dustbubble (not verified) on 08 Mar 2012 #permalink

You make a great case for "foreign" seeds being tracked in there, but no case at all for why this is such a "DANGER"!

Given as others above mention, global warming and the fact that water- and air-born seeds will inevitably get there, and given that what gets tracked there cannot thrive unless it is a species adapted to those extremes, why is there a concern that there would be a disaster?

You say there is "...nothing green. No grass, no plants, no trees.." but are there not fungi, lichens, liverworts, mosses, and flowering plants like Antarctic hair grass and Antarctic pearlwort?

Is the concern that these species might disappear? Given that life is so sparsely populating Antarctica, it's hard to see an invasion, which is, again given global warming, inevitable, as such a monumental disaster.