Invasive Species 'Hitchhiking' on Ships to Antarctica Could Threaten Ecosystem

The South Pole is warming at an alarming rate and three times faster than the rest of the world, according to scientists.
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The unwanted guest could impact the landscape of the continent as climate change has already been altering it.

The coldest continent on the planet can’t even give the cold shoulder to an unwanted stowaway as scientists say an invasive species could threaten Antarctica’s ecosystem by potentially “hitchhiking” its way to the tundra, BBC reported.

A recent study by researchers from the University of Cambridge and British Antarctic Survey and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that fishing and tourist vessels that regularly visit the protected land could bring the invasive species to the desolate region.

The study concluded that ships from 1,580 ports around the world visit Antarctica regularly.

"We found that fishing boats operating in Antarctic waters visit quite a restricted network of ports, but the tourist and supply ships travel across the world," lead researcher Arlie McCarthy from the University of Cambridge said in a statement.  "It means that almost anywhere could be a potential source for invasive species."

Those non-native species, she explained, "can completely change an ecosystem,” adding, “they can create entirely new habitats that would make it harder for those amazing Antarctic animals to find their own place to live."

Foreign ships coming to a remote region, bringing new lifeforms that are not native to Antarctica pose a serious threat, according to the study.

"Antarctica’s Southern Ocean supports a unique biota and represents the only global marine region without any known biological invasions. However, climate change is removing physiological barriers to potential invasive nonnative species and increasing ship activities are raising propagule pressure," the study said.

The species, which includes mussels, barnacles, crabs and algae, attach themselves to the hulls of oncoming ships, in a process known as "biofouling" and then could arrive in Antarctic waters threatening the ecosystem, Sky News reported.

"We were surprised to find that Antarctica is much more globally connected than was previously thought,” McCarthy added. “Our results show that biosecurity measures need to be implemented at a wider range of locations than they currently are.”

McCarthy did add that there are strict regulations in place for preventing non-native species getting into Antarctica, but “the success of these relies on having the information to inform management decisions.”

"We hope our findings will improve the ability to detect invasive species before they become a problem,” she added.

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