Unwelcome guests: International tourism and travel can be a pathway for introducing invasive species

International tourism can facilitate the dispersal of exotic species. A new analysis of data from tourism accommodations and exotic organism detections in New Zealand, published in NeoBiota, shows that levels of detection significantly correlated to international and domestic tourist movement, even with population levels taken into account. There was no detectable difference between the risk from international and domestic tourists, indicating that tourism as an activity correlates with the introduction and spread of exotic species.

Tourists, albeit unwittingly, may help such unwanted organisms spread further and conquer new lands – they can carry them over in their luggage or on their clothes and shoes. In 2011, a study from New Zealand found that, for every gram of soil on the footwear of aircraft passengers arriving from abroad, there were 2.5 plant seeds, 41 roundworms, 0.004 insects and mites, and many microorganisms, such as fungi that could cause plant diseases. Moreover, these organisms were alive, and some of them were known to be biosecurity threats. Importantly, tourism can introduce risk in two directions, namely from the arrival of international travellers and also the return of residents from international travel.

An important question, then, is to what degree they play a role in the spread of exotic organisms. A study, carried out by Dr Andrew Robinson of the Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis at the University of Melbourne and Mark McNeill of AgResearch New Zealand, looks to answer that question.

To do so, the researchers compared data on the interceptions of exotic organisms in New Zealand against accommodation data for international and domestic tourists, factoring for the country’s population distribution. The study, recently published in the open-access journal NeoBiota, covered the period between 2011 and 2017, and the exotic organisms that were detected included insects, spiders, mites, snails, plants, and roundworms. 

Robinson and McNeill found a significant relationship between levels of incursion detection and tourism accommodation records: the number of nights spent in hotels significantly correlated to the detection of exotic pests for that period. Importantly, the study found no significant difference between the effect of international and domestic tourism, proving that even travel within the country can facilitate the spread of exotic species. A significant positive correlation was also found between the detection of exotic organisms and population numbers across different regions. 

“The core take-home message is that within-country tourism movements are significantly correlated to the detection of exotic pests,” the researchers explained. That is, tourists and returning residents bring bugs in, and both are implicated at spreading them once they are in the country. They suggest that biosecurity authorities should continue allocating resources to the management of invasive species and pests that get carried around by tourists and their activities. 

However, they also point to the biosecurity risk posed by other possible pathways for of exotic organisms, such as sea freight. A comparison between the different ways of introduction and dispersal would provide a better understanding of relative risk, they conclude.

Research article:

Robinson AP, McNeill MR (2022) Biosecurity and post-arrival pathways in New Zealand: relating alien organism detections to tourism indicators. NeoBiota 71: 51-69. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.71.64618

Australia’s wish list of exotic pets

In a new study, published in the peer-reviewed open-access scholarly journal Neobiota, scientists estimated the desire of Australians to own non-native and/or illegal alien pets and the major trends in this practice. In addition, the team suggests ways to improve biosecurity awareness in the country.

Juvenile green iguanas for sale at Repticon Trading Convention 2018 in Palm Springs, Florida
Photo by Adam Toomes

Unsustainable trade of species is a major pathway for the introduction of invasive alien species at distant localities and at higher frequencies. It is also a major driver of over-exploitation of wild native populations. In a new study, published in the peer-reviewed open-access scholarly journal Neobiota, scientists estimated the desire of Australians to own non-native and/or illegal alien pets and the major trends in this practice. In addition, the team suggests ways to improve biosecurity awareness in the country.

Over the last two decades, Australia has been experiencing an increased amount of non-native incursions from species prominent in the international pet trade, such as rose-ringed parakeets, corn snakes and red-eared sliders. On many occasions, these animals are smuggled into the country only to escape or be released in the wild.

In general, the Australian regulations on international pet trade are highly stringent, in order to minimise biosecurity and conservation risks. Some highly-desirable species represent an ongoing conservation threat and biosecurity risk via the pet-release invasion pathway. However, lack of consistent surveillance of alien pets held, legally or otherwise, in Australia remains the main challenge. While there are species which are not allowed to be imported, they are legal for domestic trade within the country. Pet keepers have the capacity to legally or illegally acquire desired pets if they are not accessible through importation, and the number of such traders is unquantified.

Since keeping most of the alien pets in Australia is either illegal or not properly regulated, it is really difficult to quantify and assess the public demand for alien wildlife.

A juvenile ball python for sale at Repticon Trading Convention 2018 in Palm Springs, Florida
Photo by Adam Toomes

“We obtained records of anonymous public enquiries to the Australian Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment relating to the legality of importation of various alien taxa. We aimed to investigate whether species desired in Australia were biased towards being threatened by extinction, as indicated by broader research on pet demand or towards being invasive species elsewhere, which would indicate trade-related biosecurity risks”,

shares the lead author Mr. Adam Toomes from the University of Adelaide.

According to the research team’s analysis, pets desired by Australians are significantly biased towards threatened species, invasive species and species prominent in the U.S. pet trade.

“This novel finding is of great concern for biosecurity agencies because it suggests that a filtering process is occurring where illegally smuggled animals may already be “pre-selected” to have the characteristics that are correlated with invasive species,”

warns Mr. Adam Toomes.

However, the bias towards species already traded within the U.S. suggests that there is potential to use this as a means of predicting future Australian desire, as well as the acquisition of pets driven by desire. Future research from the Invasion Science & Wildlife Ecology Group at The University of Adelaide will investigate whether Australian seizures of illegal pets can be predicted using U.S. trade data.

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Original source:

Toomes A, Stringham OC, Mitchell L, Ross JV, Cassey P (2020) Australia’s wish list of exotic pets: biosecurity and conservation implications of desired alien and illegal pet species. NeoBiota 60: 43-59. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.60.51431

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Survival of soil organisms is a wake-up call for biosecurity

Tiny creatures in soil that attack plants have shown the ability to survive for at least three years stored in dry conditions in a recent AgResearch study, giving new insights into the biosecurity threats posed by passenger travel and trade between countries. The research article is published in the open access journal Neobiota.

The findings of the study also add to the discussions about how best to detect these creatures, called nematodes, before they cross borders and potentially reduce yields of important crops and pasture.

Nematodes are very small worm-like organisms. They can be extremely hardy and can have both beneficial and detrimental impacts. The harmful ones, the plant parasitic nematodes (PPN) include species that attack plants reducing their growth and survival.

In the study, funded by AgResearch via the Better Border Biosecurity collaboration, soil collected from a native forest and an organic orchard was stored separately in cupboards at room temperature for a period of 36 months.

Samples were then taken at regular intervals to see if any nematodes could be recovered from the soil and, if they could, whether they were able to infect plant hosts.

“In the study we used different methods to detect nematodes — including a water misting technique to draw them out of the soil, and a baiting method — where we grew white clover and ryegrass plants in pots containing a soil sample,” explain the authors.

“One of the PPN we looked at was the root lesion nematode. What we found was that lesion nematodes were able to successfully invade the roots of ryegrass even after 36 months,” says AgResearch nematologist Lee Aalders.

“They were also able to produce offspring at 13 months. Interestingly, no PPN were recovered from soil stored beyond the 13th month using the three-day misting technique.”

This means that given the right conditions, PPN in soil, which is carried on sea freight, footwear or used machinery, and protected from sun or extreme heat, will survive if they end up near a suitable host plant. This is a result that may not be detected using an extraction test like misting.

For quarantine officials around the world, this result is an important find, as it reinforces the risk associated with soil that, even though it may look sterile, unwanted nematodes may be present and undetected until paired with a suitable host plant.

“In the context of biosecurity, we think that the development of a generic test for plant parasitic nematodes – based around a molecular based bioassay — would enhance the probability of detection of PPNs and, therefore, prevent unwanted incursions beyond the border.”

Earlier this year, another AgResearch study into the survival rates of various transported soil organisms and published in Neobiota concluded that biosecurity risks from soil organisms are to increase with declining transport duration and increasing protection from environmental extremes.

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Original source:

Aalders LT, McNeill MR, Bell NL, Cameron C (2017) Plant parasitic nematode survival and detection to inform biosecurity risk assessment. NeoBiota 36: 1-16. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.36.11418