| TROLL STATION, Antarctica
TROLL STATION, Antarctica Aliens are landing in
Antarctica. Seeds, spores, mites, lichens and mosses alien to
the continent have been brought unwittingly by scientists and
tourists, and could disrupt life in the icy wilderness.
Antarctica is best known for penguins as well as seals and
whales, but scientists are finding a host of other tiny
organisms from springtails -- closely related to insects -- to
And they fear global warming may create conditions suitable
for outside marauders such as rats or mice in Antarctica, where
the biggest land creature is now a tiny flightless midge.
Among plants a type of European grass -- agrostis
stolonifera -- may be among threats if the icy climate thaws.
"It's a species that gets everywhere, it's already on most
of the Antarctic islands," said Dana Bergstrom of the
Australian Antarctic Division, who leads an international
research project entitled "Aliens in Antarctica."
"It would just create lawns," she said.
Invasive species have long disrupted life on earth, from
rabbits brought to Australia by European settlers to zebra
mussels from Russia clogging pipes and piers in North America's
Great Lakes, and now Antarctica is a target.
"Antarctica is the last bastion of a pristine environment
compared to the rest of the world," Bergstom said in a
"It has been isolated by the southern ocean -- people are
starting to break that barrier," she said. New species are
getting in partly because visitors' clothes often contain
seeds, spores or insect eggs.
So far, invaders have bridgeheads on Antarctic islands
ringing the continent, which have been getting warmer in recent
decades. Among the most damaging were reindeer on South Georgia
and rats and cats on Macquarie Island, Bergstrom said.
Elsewhere in Antarctica, grass was found growing under a
Japanese research hut. Invasive plants were found near a
Russian station and a wide variety of fungi near an Australian
People are acting to try to stem the invasion, even as
visitor numbers rise.
"Our flowers are all plastic. We are not allowed to bring
in any living thing," said Atle Markussen, head of the Troll
scientific research station in a sector claimed by Norway,
pointing to a vase of fake red roses on the canteen table.
"The restrictions about alien species are very strict," he
said in the base, set amid jagged mountains that look like the
homes of fabled Troll giants.
Temperatures during a recent summertime visit were about
minus 10 Celsius (14 Fahrenheit) -- far too cold for roses.
Even around Troll, on the edge of mountains 250 km (155
miles from the sea, tens of thousands of Antarctic and snow
petrels thrive. Four species of mite, for instance, have been
found in recent years and lichen clings to some rocks.
About 40,000 people visit Antarctica every year, mostly
tourists on the coast, and the continent has a summer
population of about 4,000 researchers.
A big threat is that climate change, blamed by the U.N.
Climate Panel on greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels,
may make Antarctica more habitable for damaging outsiders.
Rats or mice aboard ships might jump off on the Antarctic
peninsula, the least chilly region snaking northwards towards
the southern tip of South America.
"Large areas are available for colonization on the
peninsula," Bergstrom said. "There are rats on South Georgia so
it's only a little hop, skip and a jump away." All ships should
be designed to prevent any rat escapes, she said.
Scientists worry that new species may be arriving more
quickly than life on the continent can be documented.
"One Swedish scientist found eight types of unknown
Antarctic organisms in a sample from a single small pond," said
Kim Holmen, research director of the Norwegian Polar Institute.
To keep the invaders out, tourism operators make visitors
scrub their boots and ban them from taking food ashore.
Australia requires scientists to vacuum their clothing to get
off any seeds. Fumigation of food shipments could help.
The restrictions mean that Troll, built for a year-round
staff of eight, only receives fresh fruit or vegetables when
visitors arrive at a local airstrip.
"It would be nice to have a sealed greenhouse to try to
grow something fresh. But it would violate the rules," said
Oystein Johansen, the station's doctor.
-- For Reuters latest environment blogs click on:
(Editing by Andrew Dobbie and Sara Ledwith)