Study: Mussels could invade Antarctica, severely threaten its biodiversity

Santiago, Mar 31 (efe-epa).- The recent discovery of mussels in Antarctica suggests that species could invade the white continent, completely altering its ecosystem and causing a tremendous loss of biodiversity, according to a Chilean-led study.

The sharp rise in temperature of the Southern Ocean due to climate change and a growing influx of ships created the perfect conditions for invasive species to arrive in Antarctica.

A mussel settlement had never been observed before on that continent, the study’s author, Leyla Cardenas, told Efe, noting that those shellfish are “excellent competitors for space” and could “grow and rapidly dominate their surroundings.”

These organisms attach themselves to the hulls of trans-oceanic cruise liners and travel thousands of kilometers to the Antarctic region, home to an ecosystem that is unique but increasingly under threat.

“Antarctica is one of the few places in the world where no invasion as such has yet occurred. In the rest of world, as a consequence of climate change, the different environments have tended to become homogenized,” said Cardenas, a geneticist at the Austral University of Chile’s Research Center on the Dynamics of High Latitude Marine Ecosystems (IDEAL).

The fact this is occurring at the planet’s southernmost point signifies “a tremendous loss of unique diversity that has taken millions of years to establish itself,” the Chilean researcher said.

“We’ve disturbed the environment to such a degree that eventually there may be nowhere (in the world) without signs of the impact of man. And we’re seeing this can happen in the short term,” said the expert, whose study was published in Scientific Reports, an online, multidisciplinary open-access journal published by Nature Research.

A group of international experts in February published a study on the 13 species most likely to invade the ecosystems of the Antarctic Peninsula, which is part of the larger peninsula of West Antarctica.

The Chilean mussel was among the most “problematic” species identified, along with the Mediterranean mussel, a species of edible seaweed known as “wakame,” some crabs, mites and other arthropods.

The mussels discovered by Cardenas and her team of North American experts correspond to the same genetic group that inhabits Patagonia and the Kerguelen archipelago, a group of islands in the Antarctic that are part of a large igneous province mostly submerged by the southern Indian Ocean.

In fact, a related species has already demonstrated its “highly invasive potential” by establishing and developing stable populations in the Arctic – in an ecosystem similar to that of the Antarctic continent – as a result of global warming-related sea ice melt.

If this phenomenon occurs in the region around the Earth’s South Pole, algae and other organisms that live in the Antarctic substrate will be severely affected.

“The most worrying aspect is that there would be no biological control on mussels (in Antarctica) because there are no shredder organisms like crabs,” Miguel Pardo, an ecologist at the IDEAL center.

The probability is high that mussels will invade Antarctica, according to Pardo, co-author of the study, noting that they are “highly fertile, grow rapidly and tolerate low temperatures.”

He added that the fact they have been invasive species at other latitudes is an “excellent predictor of (their) invasiveness” in Antarctica.

Cardenas, for her part, said the mussels that have arrived in Antarctica “need interaction with the environment and the protection of the marine substrate.”

“At this time, marine sponges are providing that refuge,” she added.

The geneticist said observations must continue to determine if these organisms are capable of surviving the extreme cold of the Antarctic winter and whether their arrival is a sporadic or continuous phenomenon.

“Monitoring the environmental changes is essential. From there, we need to create mechanisms that ensure the arrival of boats free of alien species that could turn invasive,” she said. EFE-EPA


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