Giovanni Vimercati is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and most recently recipient of the Best Talk award (Early Career Researcher) at the 2022 NEOBIOTA conference held in mid-September in Tartu, Estonia.
As a sponsor of the event and publisher of the NeoBiota journal, Pensoft granted a complimentary publication in it to the awardee.
NeoBiota readers might already be familiar with Vimercati, whose name first appeared on its pages in a 2017 paper that used alien amphibians as a case study to identify the differences and potential difficulties with two impact assessment scoring tools: the Environmental Impact Classification of Alien Taxa (EICAT) and the Generic Impact Scoring System (GISS).
Then, in 2020 and 2021, the researcher had two research articles published in NeoBiota as lead author. The 2020 paper provided a summary of the frameworks assessing beneficial impacts of alien species, while in the 2021 study his team used a spatially-explicit stage-structured model to assess efficacy of past, present and alternative control strategies for invasive guttural toads (Sclerophrys gutturalis) in Cape Town.
In anticipation of Vimercati claiming the Best Talk award with a forthcoming submission to the journal, we asked him to join us for an interview and share his thoughts on his research.
Going back to the beginning, what sparked your interest in the study of invasive species in particular? What are the unique aspects of your research?
Like the episodic nature of many biological invasions, my first contact with the study of alien species was quite “unexpected”. Having a strong interest in herpetology, I had the luck to pursue my doctoral research at the Center of Excellence for Invasion Biology (CIB) in Stellenbosch, South Africa, where I studied the invasion of an alien amphibian species. My PhD study, and the highly stimulating community of researchers that characterized the CIB, made me realize not only that invasive species provide an invaluable opportunity to address ecological and evolutionary questions, but also how important it is to study their impact on biodiversity and human communities.
One unique aspect of my research since then has been its multidisciplinary character, as I have studied biological invasions from multiple angles simultaneously, by using mathematical models, physiological experiments, field surveys, remote sensing, literature reviews, meta analysis, and questionnaires. It seems a paradox, but the uniqueness of my research on biological invasions is that it has never really been unique!
Are there recent developments in the field that you find particularly interesting to explore?
As many other scientific disciplines, the field of invasion science is highly dynamic, and novel developments emerge every year. However, I find of particular interest the development of new approaches and tools to explore the links between biological invasions and the various socio-economic contexts. The use of online structured and semi-structured interviews, or the development of standardized socio-economic indicators are, for example, particularly promising for future studies.
In addition, the emergence of novel technological tools, for instance, linked to remote sensing, eDNA, stable isotopes and camera trapping, or the rapid increase in the computational power of modern CPUs, are allowing invasion scientists to collect and analyze data that used to be unaffordable, or simply unavailable. It is certainly an exciting moment to be an invasion scientist.
What do you find to be the biggest challenges as a researcher in your field?
I find that the proliferation of hypotheses and frameworks that characterize the field of invasion biology are particularly intriguing and challenging. Many of them work extremely well in certain conditions or across specific taxonomic groups, but they often lack generality or are marred by context dependence, which may limit their predictive power.
Addressing such a context dependence and finding ways to integrate various hypotheses and frameworks in invasion biology will be highly beneficial for understanding and forecasting biological invasions in the next decades.
Another challenge is to communicate the implications of our research to non-experts. I often wonder how stakeholders and policymakers from different cultural backgrounds or geographic regions perceive alien species and their impacts.
The theme of this year’s NEOBIOTA conference was “Biological Invasions in a Changing World”. To what extent can changes be anticipated and forecasted in order to make the work of assessing their impacts and mitigating damage easier?
I think that a key point would be to focus on specific indicators or proxies to measure these changes, so that different impacts and species can be quantified, both transparently and consistently.
In recent years, the field has produced a huge body of literature regarding impacts caused by alien species, but the results of these studies have not always been comparable. I feel that the development of the EICAT framework and its recent adoption by the IUCN as a global standard for measuring the magnitude of environmental impacts of alien species were two very important steps in this direction.
Your talk at the NEOBIOTA conference focused on the positive socio-economic impacts of invasive species. Why is this important for different stakeholders, including policy makers, but also local communities and individuals?
In my opinion, invasive species, and more generally alien species, can have various positive socio-economic impacts that should be identified and assessed rigorously. These impacts are often anecdotally reported or vaguely stated in the literature, a tendency that hampers our capacity to identify (and forecast) conflicts of interest among different stakeholders or understand their perceptions toward alien species.
In my talk, I presented the preliminary version of a framework that assesses positive socio-economic impacts. The framework is based on the capability approach, and aims to quantify the degree to which the well-being of certain human communities increases after the introduction of alien species. Of course, the scheme won’t be used in isolation, but rather in combination with other frameworks that assess the negative socio-economic and environmental impacts of alien species, so that their effects can be understood in their full complexity.