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Polar alien hunters launch their maiden mission

Arlie McCarthy

University of Tasmania alumna Arlie McCarthy has launched what she hopes is mission possible— stopping alien species invading the polar regions.

The marine biologist has co-founded a new educational and biosecurity engagement initiative: The Polar Alien Hunters, which aims to educate visitors to the Antarctic regions about the risk of introducing non-native species.

“Antarctica is the last true wilderness on the planet, but with climate change and an increase in human visitors, the unique and fragile ecosystems of the polar regions are under threat,” Arlie said.

The skilled science communicator and recipient of the prestigious John Monash Scholarship is completing her PhD at Cambridge University and the British Antarctic Survey.

Arlie’s research looks at the way that non-native marine species could be introduced to ecosystems, through transport on the bottom of boats and ships, but also the capacity of these species to establish populations now and in the future.

“People may be aware of non-native species, such as cane toads, rabbits and carp, but I am interested in the things that are stuck to the underside of ships and boats, such as algae, seaweeds and little creatures that are related to sand fleas or jellyfish,” she said.

“When ships travel around the world, they take these species with them.”

Arlie studied a Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne and a Diploma of Languages (German), before moving to Hobart to complete a Masters in Marine and Antarctic Science at the University of Tasmania in Hobart.

In hindsight, her decision to study science with a major in Zoology was not unexpected.

“Curiosity and an enthusiasm for learning new things was highly valued in my family,” Arlie said.

“Growing up in Melbourne, we would go camping and my mum, who is a plant scientist, would always talk about the natural world.

“I always loved animals and from the age of 10, I was sending donations to wildlife charities, so even though studying Zoology wasn’t a conscious decision, when I look back, it seems only natural that I studied it.”

Her research has taken her around the world. For now, Cambridge, England is home. Studying during the extended COVID-19 lockdowns has had an impact on her PhD plans, but she is adapting to the challenges.

“I had a two-week field to the Falkland Islands to collect samples postponed, but thankfully a lot of my research can be conducted on a computer.”

It has also given her the time to co-found the science and education engagement project The Polar Alien Hunters with Jesamine Bartlett, a terrestrial researcher focused on polar invaders and how they influence the ecosystems.

Christy Hehir, a psychologist and tourism expert based at the University of Surrey, who specialises in polar tourism and behaviour change for conservation, and polar biologist and illustrator Alice Pullen are also collaborators on the project.

Currently, Antarctica has no confirmed species of invasive species and the alien hunters would like to keep it that way.

The aim is to inform and educate visitors to the polar regions about the risk of invasive species.

“We want to educate visitors about the best way to keep themselves and their own ‘spaceships’ alien free when they visit Antarctica,” she said.

Applications for the 2022 John Monash Scholarships open on the 1st of May.

Image: Liz Addicoat

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Published on: 15 Apr 2021 10:44am