A new international study has found alien plant species are increasingly hitchhiking their way to Antarctica on scientists and tourists and could threaten the delicate frozen ecosystem.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal today, is the first continent-wide assessment of invasive species in Antarctica.

In 2007–2008 researchers from Australia, South Africa, The Netherlands, France, Japan, United Kingdom and Belgium sampled, identified and mapped the seeds carried into Antarctica by around 1000 visitors.

Australian Antarctic Division Terrestrial Ecologist, Dr Dana Bergstrom, said they found an average of just below 10 seeds in the clothing and equipment of each person surveyed.

“With more than 33,000 tourists and 7000 scientists visiting the continent in 2007–2008, the potential for these seeds to establish themselves in the fragile, ice-free areas is substantial,” Dr Bergstrom said.

Many of the seed species identified were from cold climates, and include the Iceland Poppy, Tall Fescue Velvet grass and Annual winter grass.

“Over half the people surveyed had visited other cold climate areas in the past year, making it even more likely the seeds they were carrying could propagate in the warmer areas of Antarctica.”

The study also identified hotspots where invasive weeds were most likely to thrive now and into the future.

“At the moment our findings predict that the ice-free areas along the Western Antarctic Peninsula are the most likely places for weed species to arrive and this is what we find is happening on the ground,” she said.

“However, we think that in another 100 years, as the climate warms and glaciers retreat, other areas will also be at risk including other parts of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Ross Sea and East Antarctic Coastal regions.

“It’s well known that invasive species are among the primary causes of biodiversity loss worldwide and one of the most significant conservation threats to Antarctica. So it’s important to prevent introductions of weeds and pests through simple biosecurity measures such as taking clean or new clothing and equipment to Antarctica, and closely monitoring hot spots for incursions and eradicating them immediately,” Dr Bergstrom said.

The Australian Antarctic program already has training and procedures in place on cleaning clothing and equipment for any person travelling to Antarctica.