Accidental transfer of non-native soil organisms into Antarctica on construction vehicles
Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems currently include very few non-native species, due to the continent’s extreme isolation from other landmasses. However, the indigenous biota is vulnerable to human-mediated introductions of non-native species. In December 2005, four construction vehicles were imported by contractors to the British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) Rothera Research Station (Antarctic Peninsula) from the Falkland Islands and South Georgia (South Atlantic) on board RRS James Clark Ross. The vehicles were contaminated with >132 kg of non-Antarctic soil that contained viable non-native angiosperms, bryophytes, micro-invertebrates, nematodes, fungi, bacteria, and c. 40,000 seeds and numerous moss propagules. The incident was a significant contravention of BAS operating procedures, the UK Antarctic Act (1994) and the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (1998), which all prohibit the introduction of non-native species to Antarctica without an appropriate permit. The introduction of this diverse range of species poses a significant threat to local biodiversity should any of the species become established, particularly as the biota of sub-Antarctic South Georgia is likely to include many species with appropriate pre-adaptations facilitating the colonisation of more extreme Antarctic environments. Once the incident was discovered, the imported soil was removed immediately from Antarctica and destroyed. Vehicle cleaning and transportation guidelines have been revised to enhance the biosecurity of BAS operations, and to minimise the risk of similar incidents occurring.