Marine invertebrates such as mussels and crabs are top of the list of invasive species expected to arrive in the Antarctic Peninsula region over the next decade, though button weed and mites were also identified as imminent threats. Mussels, for example, can survive in polar waters and spread easily, threatening marine life on the seabed; their water filtering alters the marine food chain and also the chemistry of the water around them

The research was overseen by Professor Helen Roy, a UKCEH ecologist who is also co-chair of a major global assessment into invasive non-native species by IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services).

The study was part of a wider UK government-funded research programme predicting the threat from invasive non-native species that includes all the UK Overseas Territories. The researchers analysed hundreds of academic papers, reports and databases to find the species most likely to invade the Antarctic Peninsula.

Dr Kevin Hughes of BAS, lead author of the study, which has been published in Global Change Biology, says: “The Antarctic Peninsula region is by far the busiest and most visited part of Antarctica due to growing tourism and scientific research activities. 

Non-native species can be transported to Antarctica by many different means. Visitors can carry seeds and non-sterile soil attached to their clothing and footwear. Imported cargo, vehicles and fresh food supplies can hide species, including insects, plants and even rats and mice. Marine species present a particular problem as they can be transported to Antarctica attached to ship hulls. They can be very difficult to remove once established.

Professor Roy says: “We think the conditions in the Antarctic Peninsula region will remain too extreme to allow rodents to colonise outside. However, rats and mice could survive by hiding within research station buildings, so everyone needs to remain vigilant for droppings and gnaw marks.

“It is critical to ensure that comprehensive biosecurity checks are implemented by all visitors coming to the area to prevent invasive non-native species getting to Antarctica in the first place. Only then will we be able to reduce the risks and protect the amazing, but vulnerable Antarctic ecological communities from the threat of invasive non-native species.”