There Goes the Ecosystem: Alien Animals Invade Antarctica

Humanity is well on its way to screwing up Antarctic and the Southern Ocean in addition to the warmer corners of the world

2012 might have been the hottest year on record in the continental United States, but humanity is well on its way to screwing up Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, as well. Thanks to an influx of tourists and higher temperatures due to climate change, invasive species are beginning to move in to the previously pristine landscape. And we know what that means—there goes the ecosystem. Just think of zebra mussels, kudzu, Asian carp, longhorn beetles and any rat on any island ever. National Geographic summarizes:

The remoteness of the Antarctic can no longer protect it from potentially destructive invaders. Forget about The Thing – the scariest alien invaders in the Antarctic come from our own planet.

Two studies recently turned up evidence of invasives making both landfall and sea-fall on Antarctica. In the sea, a crab invasion likely started in 2007, when an ecologist spotted a few king crabs off the Antarctic Peninsula, where they had no business being. Cold water formerly barred crustaceans from Antarctica’s surrounding ocean, but as the waters warmed the crabs moved in. Local Antarctic species don’t have the natural defenses to withstand the crabs’ crushing pinchers, and the deadly crustacean’s claw-hold on the region will likely only become stronger as waters warm. Researchers estimate around 1.5 million crabs have moved in already.

Meanwhile, on land, another invader has taken up residence. It’s a midge, a type of very small fly. The busy flies, natives of South Georgia Island, seem to be speeding up the rate at which decomposition occurs in the Antarctic soil, which typically undergoes very slow rates of decay. Native Antarctic species are a picky, delicate bunch, so any change, even as slight as faster soil decay, could disturb them.

Strict rules for tourists and research scientists may help prevent unwanted introductions, like the midge, though there’s not much that can be done about the natural colonization of the Antarctic ocean by species like crabs as the water warms.

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