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Marine animals ‘hitchhiking’ on ships are a threat to Antarctica’s pristine ecosystem

Antarctica has been relatively isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years but these days ships could potentially introduce marine animals and seaweeds. Invasive species can have drastic consequences for ecosystems, for example by taking over areas and creating a new habitat or becoming predators for species with no suitable defences.

The best way to protect against this is to prevent any non-native species from arriving in the first place. Of course, any new species would still need to survive the freezing waters around Antarctica but, as it happens, the ships usually visit the areas that are warming fastest due to climate change.

Aside from a few seals, whales and migratory birds, Antarctica’s unique marine life has been largely cut off by the currents of the Southern Ocean which rotate clockwise around the continent and deflect away most floating organisms. The species that do arrive, perhaps attached to drifting kelp, are faced with year-round low temperatures and strong seasons.

Although this barrier has existed for millions of years, ships allow species to reach Antarctica and its coastal waters that could never otherwise have made the trip. Reaching the Antarctic coastline from sub-Antarctic islands can take up to three years for species associated with…

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