Invasion biologist receives international Antarctic prize

Prof Steven Chown of Stellenbosch University received the first Martha T. Muse Prize at the 4th International Polar Year Conference, which is currently being held in Oslo (Norway). It recognises his outstanding work in science and policy in Antarctica.

The prize, worth about R750 000 ($100 000), is supported by the Tinker Foundation and administered by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR).

Prof Chown, director of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology and professor in the Stellenbosch University Department of Botany and Zoology, is recognized as a world leader in his field of research and as a respected advisor to the Antarctic Treaty System.

According to Renate Rennie, Chairman and President of the Tinker Foundation, Prof Chown clearly exemplifies the attributes of the prize. She referred to the prize criteria demanding a recipient who is not only excellent in science in Antarctica, but who also contributes substantially towards preservation of the area.

To him, policy advising is of vital importance.

“It is insufficient to go to a meeting of experts and formulate 20 recommendations without ensuring that they are enforced, he stated in his Prize Lecture.

Among the dignitaries present when Prof Chown presented his Prize Lecture on changes in the biodiversity in Antarctica, were two princes: Prince Albert II of Monaco and Crown Prince Haakon of Norway.

In his lecture (click here for a webcast, Prof Chown reminded the audience that in the fifty years that have passed since the 3rd International Polar Year, the earth’s population has increased from 2.9 billion to 6 billion people.

“Changes in the global system influence the Antarctic and vice versa,” he stressed.
He said that policy advising is of vital importance.

In his lecture Prof Chown showed how these impacts have been seen in on the small, sub-Antarctic island Marion Island which is located at 47 degrees south, where he has done a tremendous amount of research.

“On Marion Island, the average temperature has increased by 1.5 degrees over past 50-60 years, and the annual precipitation has decreased by 600 millimeters,” he said.

He showed photographs from the 1960s and compared them to photographs taken in 2009, illustrating a major change in the island’s climate and biodiversity.

Alongside the changes in the global climate, the world has witnessed a dramatic increase in biological invasions over the past fifty years.

The Antarctic is a very special place, being basically free from invasional species at most sites due to the absence of human interventions. “However, we find more and more alien species on the sub-Antarctic islands”, he pointed out.

He presented data showing the correlation between the increased number of visits to the islands, and the increase of alien species. The more occupants in an area, the more likely are alien species. This is true for mammals, vascular plants and insects.

One example is that of Mediterranean mussels that are transported to the islands on the hull of ships.

“The world today is very much connected”, Prof Chown stressed. “How we change one area, has an effect on the biodiversity in other parts of the world. We cannot afford to ignore that message,” he said.

To illustrate the complexity, Prof Chown cited an example from Australia, where the eradication of cats once led to an increase of rabbits, and the more recent eradication of rabbits has had a negative impact on plant life.
“The lesson from this is that prevention is always much better and more cost effective than cure”, he said Chown.

Chown ended his lecture by expressing his hope for the next generation of scientists.

“I hope they will look back and say that the 4th International Polar Year really changed the way things are done,” he said. “May our future scientists be able to say that we succeeded as scientists and as people, and that we no longer have the problems that our ancestors had,” he concluded.

Photo: Two princes were present when Steven Chown received his prize. From the left: Professor Chuck Kennicut, Prince Albert II of Monaco, Professor Steven Chown and Crown Prince Haakon of Norway (John Petter Reinertsen, SAMFOTO).