Aliens in Antarctica

Scientist examining insects collected in Antarctica using a stereoscopic dissecting microscope
Ms Leslie Frost examines insects collected in Antarctica using a stereoscopic dissecting microscope (Photo: Glenn Jacobson)

10 July 2006

The introduction of non-native species to Antarctica poses a threat to Antarctic animals and plants through disease.

Now a new Alien Invertebrate Collection Kit, developed by environmental officers at the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), is available on ships and stations to enable expeditioners to collect anything suspicious.

Alien invertebrates include insects, slugs and spiders, which can stow away on personal clothing, baggage, food and in ships’ cargo.

A recent outbreak of mushroom gnats (Lycoriella ingenua) at Casey station, for example, was thought to originate from tiny eggs deposited on fresh vegetables delivered on a resupply voyage. The eggs were then washed down the kitchen sink and into the waste treatment plant where they hatched.

Despite strict quarantine procedures for food, vacuuming of clothing and baggage, and the scrubbing and sterilisation of footwear, aliens will still find their way into Antarctica. As tourist and research visits increase, so will the risk.

AAD Operations Safety and Environment Advisor, Leslie Frost, said many people visiting Antarctica may have visited other cold or polar regions and could bring alien species with them that are well adapted to the Antarctic environment.

“These alien invertebrate kits provide an efficient collection and cataloguing process that will allow us to identify the most common aliens carried into Antarctica and where they are coming from.”

The kits include collection vials, bar codes and instructions for reporting the find on the AAD’s incident reporting system, which enables tracking of the samples in an alien invertebrate database.

Should the worst happen, through an alien introduction or a natural event, AAD environmental officers have also developed an Unusual Animal Mortality Kit which, together with the Unusual Animal Mortality Response Plan, guides Antarctic scientists in the collection of specimens from dead or diseased animals.

“It is rare to see large numbers of animals dying from an unknown agent but if it does happen, we need to prevent the spread of the disease, particularly by humans, to other colonies and to identify what is causing it,” Ms Frost said.

The kits, which are kept on station, contain detailed procedures on how to collect samples and appropriate protective equipment for handling infected animals.

Procedures are reviewed each year by the Wildlife Health Network.

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