Antarctica: Invasive Species

The world’s last unspoilt wilderness - Antarctica – now plays host to 40,000-30,000 tourists a year, and without stringent regulations they may be unwittingly introducing invasive species into this delicate frozen landscape.

Polar problem 

Inter-polar travel has steadily increased over the past few years, as Arctic researchers shuttle between the two poles comparing the different communities. This is problematic given that many of the species found in harsh Arctic conditions may well survive in the Antarctic.

For centuries, only itinerant avian visitors – such as skua and Arctic terns – visited this great white continent.

Hardy pioneers touched down on its icy shores in the early 1900s, and tourists followed soon after in the 1960s.

However, for decades visitors were kept at bay by the prohibitive costs, and even up until 1987, fewer than 1,000 people annually travelled to the Antarctic.

Now, with the arrival of mega tourist ships carrying up to 1000 people, plummeting costs and an aggressive tourist market, the threat of spoiling this untouched wilderness is very real.

Most people would assume that Antarctica’s frozen expanse would be wholly inhospitable to alien species, but already it hosts a range of plants, mites, fleas and flatworms from foreign climes.

And although they’re not seen in substantial numbers, the threat of these invasive species lies largely in their potential to flourish.

Those plants or animals with a mere toehold may quickly colonise this area given the right conditions. And given the threat of climate change, this is a very real possibility.

Indeed, we know so little about the organisms that live on the land and within Antarctic waters that extra vigilance is crucial to ensure the scientific rigour of the species inventory that is under way.

Currently, each country has its own bio-security measures but there is no overarching international policy to prevent the arrival of alien species.

Countries such as New Zealand and Australia have been leading the charge to establish better, more stringent bio-security measures and develop a good understanding of the pathways that lead to the introduction of foreign species.

Forest & Bird will continue to encourage the government and its research agencies to support these efforts to ensure that the Antarctic remains largely free from alien species, both on its shore and in its waters.