The aliens have landed in Antarctica, and it’s humans whodunnit.
Cue X-files theme toon? No so much …
According to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Journal, despite best efforts each human visitor is bringing in seeds of plants alien to the protected continent. About 40,000 people are now visiting every year, including an increasing number of tourists.
The study vacuumed pockets, trouser and sleeve cuffs, shoes and inside bags, it used tweezers to seek out accidentally hidden seeds. On average each person had 9.5 seeds in clothing and equipment.
9.5 per person is enough to spread plant species already viable in the cold climate, and increasingly more species could take root as the Antarctic peninsula is the most visited part of the continent and also the fastest warming place in the world.
Dana Bergstrom, from the Australian Antarctic Division, told the ABC that even 9.5 seeds per person amounts to a “substantial threat.”
“When we take things in through hitchhiking then we get species which are competitive. The plants and animals there are not necessarily competitive, so there’s a good chance… we’d start losing various precious biodiversity on the (Antarctic) continent,” she said.
Four alien species are known to be already growing with one invasive grass species tracked from its source, a Polish research station on King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland islands in the Southern Ocean.
The study sourced the seeds from a sample of visitors in late 2007 and early 2008 and has taken three years to identify all of the 71,000 seeds found.
It found that scientists were actually bringing in far more seeds per person than tourists and proposed that cleaning of everything brought in needs to be stepped up.
Philip Hulme, an ecologist at Lincoln University in New Zealand, told Wired that researchers get the most out of their investment in cold-weather gear by using the equipment in Antarctic fieldwork half the year and then transporting it to arctic environments, where it can easily pick up stowaway seeds.