Can amateurs combat the threat of alien species? Tracking introduced species in the world of citizen science

How citizen scientists documented the spread of an alien mantis across Australia

Guest blog post by Matthew Connors

From the infamous cane toad to the notorious spotted lanternfly, we all know the drastic effects that introduced species can have on both ecosystems and agriculture.

In today’s interconnected world, these alien species are being moved around the globe more frequently than ever before.  Hitchhikers and stowaways on ships, planes, and other vehicles can cause irreversible and catastrophic damage to fragile native ecosystems and to us humans, and tens of billions of dollars are spent every year trying to control these invaders.

Spotted lanternfly. Photo by peterlcoffey licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

But one of the greatest problems for researchers and government bodies trying to combat these threats is that it can be incredibly difficult to monitor the invaders even when we know they’re here.

So how on earth is anyone supposed to detect when a new species has invaded?  Many of these organisms are small, inconspicuous, and difficult to identify, and by the time they’ve been spotted it’s often already too late to act.

What if there was a way to quickly and easily find invasive organisms all over the world?  Enter the world of Citizen Science, where anybody and everybody can produce important scientific data without even leaving their backyard.  Just by taking a photograph of an organism and uploading it to a citizen science platform like iNaturalist or QuestaGame, amateurs and enthusiasts can provide scientists with invaluable records from across the globe.

A screenshot from the iNaturalist homepage, captured on July 7, 2022.

Back in 2015, when amateur naturalist Adam Edmonds spotted an unusual praying mantis in his garden, he took a photo and posted it to the Australian citizen science platform BowerBird.  When even the local experts didn’t recognise it, a specimen was sent off to mantis specialist Graham Milledge.  He confirmed that it was a newly introduced species – the South African Mantis (Miomantis caffra).

Miomantis caffra, an adult female from Victoria, Australia. Photo by Adam Edmonds

Since then, this alien mantis has spread across Australia from Sydney to Perth.  And every step of the way, citizen scientists have been there to document its spread.

Last month, all of these citizen science records were compiled by entomologist Matthew Connors of James Cook University (Queensland, Australia) into the first comprehensive report of the mantis’s presence in Australia.  Understanding where the species has spread and what impacts it has had on native species is crucial to managing and controlling it.

The introduced South African Mantis (Miomantis caffra) preys on a native Harlequin Bug (Dindymus versicolor) in Geelong, Australia.  Photo by Kelly Clitheroe

The research found that the South African Mantis has spread through suburban habitats in three Australian states (Victoria, New South Wales, and Western Australia) and one offshore territory (Norfolk Island).  It probably arrived in these regions as egg cases attached to plants and equipment, and it can now be found in high numbers, especially during late summer and early autumn.  Despite this, it appears to be highly localised and has only been recorded in suburbia, and furthermore there has not been any noticeable impact on native species.

Miomantis caffra, egg case (ootheca) from Victoria, Australia. Photo by Ken Walker

None of this research would have been possible without citizen scientists – the dedicated community of enthusiasts and amateurs who share their finds with researchers online.  Photographs from citizen science platforms and social media sites have been instrumental in showing just how far the South African Mantis has spread.  In fact, more than 90% of the records of the species come from citizen scientists, and without them we would barely know anything.

These days, more and more researchers are realising just how useful citizen science can be.  As well as tracking introduced species, citizen scientists have rediscovered rare creatures, documented never-before-seen behaviours, and even discovered completely new species.

Miomantis caffra, an adult female from Victoria, Australia. Photo by Matthew Connors

This latest research, published in the Journal of Orthoptera Research, is among a handful of recent studies that have gone a step further though – instead of just being a source of data, the citizen scientists were invited to take part in the entire research process, from data collection all the way through to publishing.  After all, they did all of the fieldwork!

Research like this is proof that anyone can be a citizen scientist in today’s day and age – so what are you waiting for?

Research article: Connors MG, Chen H, Li H, Edmonds A, Smith KA, Gell C, Clitheroe K, Miller IM, Walker KL, Nunn JS, Nguyen L, Quinane LN, Andreoli CM, Galea JA, Quan B, Sandiford K, Wallis B, Anderson ML, Canziani EV, Craven J, Hakim RRC, Lowther R, Maneylaws C, Menz BA, Newman J, Perkins HD, Smith AR, Webber VH, Wishart D (2022) Citizen scientists track a charismatic carnivore: Mapping the spread and impact of the South African Mantis (Miomantidae, Miomantis caffra) in Australia. Journal of Orthoptera Research 31(1): 69-82. https://doi.org/10.3897/jor.31.79332

Poison ivy an unlikely hero in warding off exotic invaders?

Dozens of studies have looked at the effects of Japanese knotweed on natural communities in Europe and North America. Yet Bucknell University professor Chris Martine still felt there was something important to learn about what the plant was doing along the river in his own backyard.

“The more time I spent in the forests along the Susquehanna River, the more it seemed like something was really going wrong there,” said Martine. “In addition to the prevalence of this single invasive species, it looked like the very existence of these forests was under threat.”

What Martine noticed was similar to what local nature lovers and biologists with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program were also starting to see: these forests, specifically those classified as Silver Maple Floodplain Forests, were not regenerating themselves where knotweed had taken a foothold.

In a new study published in the open access Biodiversity Data Journal, Martine and two recent Bucknell alumni conclude that Japanese knotweed has not only excluded nearly all of the native understory plant species in these forests, but it has prevented the trees already established in the canopy from leaving behind more of themselves.

“If you were to fly over these forests, or even look at a Google Earth image, you’d see a nice green canopy along the river consisting of mature silver maples, river birches, and sycamores,” explained Martine. “But below that canopy there is almost nothing for tens of feet before you reach an eight-to-twelve-foot-tall thicket of knotweed. Few new trees have been able to grow through that in the last 50-60 years and our surveys found that seedlings of these species are quite rare.”

The authors suggest that as mature trees die of natural causes over the next several decades and are not replaced, these systems will shift from tree-dominated riverbank habitats to “knotweed-dominated herbaceous shrublands” incapable of supporting a rich diversity of insects, birds, and other wildlife. Loss of trees in these habitats could likely also lead to riverbank erosion and increase the severity of flood events.

The few places where knotweed has not taken over offer a bit of hope, however, from an unlikely hero: poison-ivy, which Martine calls “perhaps the least popular plant in America.”

“What we see in the data is that poison-ivy often trades understory dominance with knotweed. That is, when knotweed isn’t the big boss, poison-ivy usually is. The difference is that whereas knotweed knocks everyone else out of the system, poison-ivy is more of a team player. Many other native plants can co-occur with it and it even seems to create microhabitats that help tree seedlings get established.”

The prevalence of poison-ivy in these sites didn’t go unnoticed by undergraduate Anna Freundlich, who collected most of the plant community data — more than 1,000 data points — in a single summer as a research fellow.

“Anna developed a pretty serious methodology for avoiding a poison-ivy rash that included long sleeves, long pants, gloves, duct tape, and an intense wash-down protocol,” said her research advisor, “and even after crawling through the plant for weeks she managed to never once get a rash.”

Martine cautions against too much optimism regarding the chances of one itch-inducing native plant saving the day, however.

“Righting this ship is going to require eradicating knotweed from some of these sites, and that won’t be easy work. It will take some hard manual labor. But it’s worth doing if we want to avoid the imminent ecological catastrophe. These forests really can’t afford another half-century of us letting knotweed run wild.”

Freundlich is a now pursuing a Master’s degree in plant ecology at the University of Northern Colorado. Lead author Matt Wilson, a Bucknell Master’s student at the time of the study who analyzed the dataset, now works for the Friends of the Verde River in Cottonwood, AZ.

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Original source:

Wilson M, Freundlich A, Martine C (2017) Understory dominance and the new climax: Impacts of Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) invasion on native plant diversity and recruitment in a riparian woodland. Biodiversity Data Journal 5: e20577. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.5.e20577

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About Japanese knotweed:

Japanese knotweed is considered to be one of the toughest, most damaging and insidious plants in the world. Native to East Asia, the species has already established successfully in many parts throughout North America and Europe, where it can easily grow and invade private properties and homes. It is hardy enough to penetrate patios, house foundations and concrete. Given it spreads easily and can grow underground to a depth of 3 metres with a horizontal range of up to 7 metres, it is extremely difficult to eradicate and its treatment requires special attention. To find advice on recognition, hazards and treatment, you can check out The Ultimate Japanese Knotweed Guide.