Dr Giovanni Vimercati gave the Best Talk at NEOBIOTA 2022

The invasion scientist and NEOBIOTA 2022 awardee shares more about his research on the impact assessment of biological invasions.

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.

Giovanni Vimercati being awarded at NEOBIOTA 2022. Photo by Ana Novoa.

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.

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Assessments of alien species impacts are reliable to prioritize resources

Experts are consistent when assessing the economic, health and ecological impacts of alien species, find the scientists.

Original post by EBD-CSIC

An international collaboration led by the Doñana Biological Station (EBD-CSIC) has shown that experts are consistent when assessing the economic, health and ecological impacts of alien species. These assessments are therefore reliable to guide the prioritization of resources invested against biological invasions.

You can find the scientific article published in the open-access, peer-reviewed scholarly journal NeoBiota.

These results have a great impact on the management by national and international institutions, which have limited resources to fight against the growing and worrying increase of alien species invasions and the damage they caused to society and environment. 

Biological invasions annually cause huge food losses, disease transmissions, species extinctions and ecosystem perturbations. For these reasons, it is one of the biggest problems that humankind currently faces, and its relevance will alarmingly increase due to the extreme situations that climate change will expose society to.

The seriousness of this problem lies in the limited human resources available to fight against it, that force to prioritize its management. Here is where tools such as impact assessments play a key role. Assessments report the impact of invasive species in different areas, including economy, health and environment, and allow us to rank the most harmful species.

For instance, in aquatic ecosystems like the Ebro Delta in Spain, there are dozens of invasive alien co-occurring species that cause millions of economic losses and irreparable ecological damage.

Such is the case of the Zebra mussel, which affects irrigation; the apple snail that devours rice fields; and the blue crab causing the local extinction and declines of many native species.

“That’s why it is crucial to ensure that the results are not dependent on the assessors and to understand what factors affect discrepancies among experts,”

explains Rubén Bernardo-Madrid, lead author and researcher at Doñana Biological Station – CSIC.

One of the relevant aspects of this study is the quantification of the consistency of responses across assessors for a large number of invasive species of vertebrates, invertebrates and plants. In addition, the researchers have studied multiple protocols focused on different aspects, providing a global view of this problem.

“The study has shown that the great majority of assessments are consistent and therefore valid to aid in decision-making. These results are encouraging as they suggest that these protocols may be useful when facing the worrying forecasts of increasing biological invasions and their damages,” 

explains Rubén.

On the other hand, the researchers have observed that discrepancies across assessments might be due to multiple factors, such as the type of impact asked or the linguistic formulation used in the protocols.

The results suggest that there is room for improvement in assessments, but it will require more funding for research, and more multidisciplinary collaborations between ecologists and linguists to develop less ambiguous protocols.

As always, the most effective measure against biological invasions turns out to be prevention.

However, given the incapacity to control every voluntary and involuntary introduction, other tools such as impact assessments are essential to reduce as far as possible the damage caused by these species on human welfare and environment. Its continuous improvement and evaluation, such as the one made in this study, are decisive.

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Research article:

Bernardo-Madrid R, González-Moreno P, Gallardo B, Bacher S, Vilà M (2022) Consistency in impact assessments of invasive species is generally high and depends on protocols and impact types. In: Giannetto D, Piria M, Tarkan AS, Zięba G (Eds) Recent advancements in the risk screening of freshwater and terrestrial non-native species. NeoBiota 76: 163-190. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.76.83028

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