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Antarctica Threatened By Invasive Species

Posted 3/06/2012 5:45 am by

Tourists hit shore in Antarctica for a day of fun in the sun.

At the turn of the 20th Century, when explorers went to Antarctica, it was a perilous, dangerous journey that could cost them their lives. These days, it’s pretty much a day trip.  While there are still hazards, going to Antarctica to perform science experiments or just wander around is incredibly common.  Thanks to Google Street View’s Antarctic exploration, it’s even easy to find your way around the frozen seventh continent.  That increase in tourism has caused an unusual problem for Antarctica:  invasive species.  Every scientist visiting Antarctica tracks in 6 foreign plant samples, while every tourist tracks in 2 or 3.

It’s not just the Florida Everglades that are at risk from outside organisms; even the most forboding continent on the planet is at risk thanks to travelers and their cold weather gear.  Apparently, visitors to Antarctica tend to go to other frigid climates in their travels, then they reuse the same cold weather gear when they take the trip down south.  That leads to cross-contamination of cold weather plants from other places into a defenseless Antarctic environment not adapted for Arctic plants like chickweed and yellow bog sedge.

“It should not be imagined that Antarctica will suddenly be covered in flowering plants and weeds.  Much of it is still a very harsh place, and plants do not grow on ice, which still dominates the continent,” said ecologist Steven Chown of the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, who authored the study and whose team vacuumed the clothing and boots of Antarctic explorers to determine contamination levels.  “In essence, take it new or take it clean.”

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