Waters off Galapagos coast under invasion by alien species from visiting boats

It isn't clear how these alien species will harm, or if they'll even affect, the Galapagos ecosystem.

The Galapagos Islands are one of the largest natural biodiversity hotspots still around today. Located just off the coast of Ecuador, the waters near the island are now being invaded by multiple foreign species.

Field surveys have discovered 48 different invasive species along the coast of the Islands, which is also a World Heritage Site, on top of five non-native species that have been known for many years now.

Researchers think the invasive organisms hitched a ride on ships from around the world.

Waters off Galapagos coast under invasion by alien species from visiting boats

One of the Galapagos' many rich ecosystems. Wikimedia Commons

While the number of invasive species on land across the World Heritage Site are well-documented, relatively little was known about those in the marine environment. The survey was done on some of the habitats around the larger Islands, which makes it only a guaranteed minimum number. The actual number of invasive species is probably a lot higher, the researchers said.

"From our knowledge of similar studies, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number was twice [as many]," Jim Carlton, a member of the research group from the Williams College in Massachusetts, told New Scientist.

Among the invaders are worms, mussels, crabs and tiny species of moss like Amathia verticillata, which feed off seagrass in the ocean and piss off fisherman by messing up their fishing gear.

A giant adult female Fernandina Tortoise. Image courtesy: Galapagos Conservatory

A giant adult female Fernandina Tortoise. Image courtesy: Galapagos Conservatory

It isn't entirely clear how these alien species will harm, or even affect, the Galapagos ecosystem. If similar invasions in other parts of the world are any guide, this is bad news — a threat to the rich diversity of endemic species the Galapagos are famous for.

More harmful species like soft corals that rapidly spawn over local corals and venomous lionfish from the Caribbean are among some of the threats that researchers think are heading the way of Galapagos' waters.

The Marine Reserve of Galapagos is a well-protected area. Yet, it is unrealistic and simply not feasible to protect the area from invaders as tiny as moss and worms coming in from every boat visiting the island.

That needs a whole new approach, the researchers said, and we're yet to find a promising intervention for it.

The study was published in the journal Aquatic Invasions.

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