Aliens in Antarctica

Rotting pears and onions which were destined for Antarctic stations
Although most fresh fruit and vegetables destined for Australian Antarctic stations were free of propagules, a few were found to be rotting, such as these pears and onions. (Photo: Dana Bergstrom)
ABC Catalyst presenter, Paul Willis, has his boots laced with seeds

26 February 2009

Aliens in Antarctica is the first major investigation into the effect of human activities in Antarctica on the invasion potential of alien (non-native) species. Over the 2007–08 summer an international team of scientists from nine nations, coordinated by the Australian Antarctic Division, investigated the likelihood of the introduction of non-native species across a wide range of national Antarctic programs and tourist operators.

Teams examined the type and number of ‘propagules’ (seeds, spores and eggs) that could be unintentionally imported into Antarctica on personal clothing and equipment, fresh food, cargo, and more than 40 ships and aircraft. Crews and passengers were also surveyed to ascertain the extent of travel that people had done before heading south, to identify the geographic range from which invasive species could be drawn. For example, seed and plant material were found on an individual who had visited alpine New Zealand.

The Australian team examined over 2000 items of fresh fruit and vegetables destined for Australian Antarctic stations. Eighty-nine per cent of items were clean, but the remaining items were either infected with fungi (9%) or had evidence of the presence of insects (2%). Blue moulds were commonly associated with fruit and vegetables that had been in cold storage for many months prior to the beginning of the Antarctic field season. As a result, scientists recommended that such produce should not be accepted within the Australian Antarctic program in future.

The Australian team also found that while most cargo was clean, live collembola mites and seeds were found in one crate, live insects were found on the C212 aircraft, and some people carried large numbers of propagules in their gear and clothing.

The Australian field work was complemented with laboratory-based simulations, including sowing seeds on different mediums, such as sand, peat and gravel, and at different temperatures, to see what could germinate and grow in dry, cold Antarctic conditions. Other experiments involved volunteers play-acting as tourists, using clothing and equipment that had been ‘spiked’ with seeds, to see how likely such seeds could be shed by tourists visiting Antarctica. Data and information gathered during the project are now being analysed and will be reported to the Antarctic Treaty Nations during the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (in April this year), at a SCAR Biology symposium and through the scientific literature. The work has also been promoted through national and international radio and television including Australia’s Catalyst science show. Ultimately, the information will be used to improve conservation and protection practices in the Antarctic region and other sensitive areas around the world.