Visitors carry unwelcome species into a once pristine environment
Aliens! In Antarctica? Oh noes! Like these?
Um, no. More like this:
It was a summer day in January when Peter Convey pulled up a weed in Antarctica for the first time. The alien plant stuck out among the native species eking out an existence on the rocky debris beneath his feet.
Convey doesn’t know for sure how the intruder, a rugged relative of the ornamental plant gerbera, traveled from its usual home 1,000 kilometers away in Tierra del Fuego. A seed may have drifted in on the wind or hitched a ride on the feather of a bird crossing the Southern Ocean. But Convey suspects that some human unwittingly delivered the species during fieldwork or while touring the remains of a whaling station nearby.
With Antarctica more trafficked by human feet than ever, scientists fear that Convey’s pulled plant and others like it herald a coming invasion. In the same way stink bugs, Asian carp and kudzu have become abundant enough to alter ecosystems across North America, earning the name “invasives,” species entering the Antarctic could multiply and spread. If so, nonnative plants — and even insects — may disrupt the most pristine landscape on Earth.
A handful of foreign creatures, including a particularly hardy kind of grass, have already shown that they’re tough enough to put down roots at the end of the Earth.