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The waters of the Galapagos Islands are being invaded by alien species

The Galapagos Archipelago is home to unique species including marine iguanas

Tui De Roy/ Minden Pictures/Getty

The waters around the Galapagos Islands, a hotspot of biodiversity off the coast of Ecuador, have been invaded by more alien species than previously thought.

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.

Now field surveys have found 48 invasive species off the coasts of the islands, in addition to five known non-native species. The organisms probably hitched a ride on ships from around the world.

These surveys were undertaken only in certain habitats around two of the larger islands, so the actual number of invasive species is likely to be much greater. “From our knowledge of similar studies, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number was twice [as many],” says team member Jim Carlton of Williams College in Massachusetts.

The alien species included worms, mussels, crabs and sea squirts. There were also tiny moss animals, such as Amathia verticillata, which kills seagrass and messes up fishing gear.

Seventeen of the newly-identified invaders had been spotted around the Galapagos archipelago before, but had been wrongly thought to have been native species.

The impact of these alien species on the islands’ ecosystems is not yet known. But it is likely to be negative judging from experiences elsewhere, and could threaten the islands’ hundr of endemic marine species. “What we know is a number of these [invasive] species clearly have had impacts elsewhere in the world,” says Carlton.

Invasions in other places suggest that even more harmful species could soon be headed for the waters of the Galapagos, the team warns, including soft corals that could grow rapidly over local coral, and the prospect of venomous lionfish crossing from the Caribbean through the Panama Canal.

The Galapagos Marine Reserve is protected, but it will be hard to stop further invaders because it is difficult to check for tiny species on the hull of every visiting boat.

Journal reference: Aquatic Invasions, DOI: 10.3391/ai.2019.14.1.01

More on these topics:

oceans

conservation

ecosystem

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