Invasive alien species? Isn’t there an app for that?

Scientists review 41 invasive species reporting apps and provide recommendations for future development.

Invasive alien species (IAS) are a leading contributor to biodiversity loss, and they cause annual economic damage in the order of hundreds of billions of US dollars in each of many countries around the world. Smartphone apps are one relatively new tool that could help monitor, predict, and ideally prevent their spread. But are they living up to their full potential?

A team of researchers from the University of Montana, the Flathead Lake Biological Station and the University of Georgia River Basin Center tried to answer that in a recent research paper in the open access, peer-reviewed journal NeoBiota. Going through nearly 500 peer-reviewed articles, they identified the key features of the perfect IAS reporting app and then rated all known English-language IAS reporting apps available to North America users against this ideal.

Smartphone apps have the potential to be powerful reporting tools. Citizen scientists the world around have made major contributions to the reporting of biodiversity using apps like iNaturalist and eBird. But apps for reporting invasive species never reached that level of popularity; Howard and his team investigated why.

Smartphone apps like the soon-to-be-released new EDDmapS platform are promising tools for monitoring, predicting, and reducing the spread of invasive species. However, the same explosion of reports has not been realized as that which has been experienced by biodiversity-wide platforms. Howard et al. investigate why there has not been the same boom in use observed for these invasive species-specific apps. Image by Leif Howard and Charles van Rees

User uptake and retention are just as important as collecting data. Howard and colleagues found that apps tend to do a good job with one of these, and rarely with both. In their paper, they emphasize that making apps user-friendly and fun to use, involving games and useful functions like species identification and social media plug-ins is a major missing piece among current apps.

“The greatest advancement in IAS early detection would likely result from app gamification,” they write.

Another feature they would like to see more of is artificial intelligence or machine learning for photo identification, which they believe would greatly enhance species identification and might increase public participation.

The authors also make suggestions for future innovations that could make IAS reporting apps even more effective. Their biggest suggestion is coordination. 

“Currently, most invasive species apps are developed by many separate organizations, leading to duplicated effort and inconsistent implementation”, they say. “The valuable data collected by these apps is also sent to different databases, making it harder for scientists to combine them for useful research.”

A more efficient way to implement these technologies might be providing open-source code and app templates, with which local organizations can make regional apps that contribute data to centralized databases. 

Overall, this research shows how with broader participation, more complete and informative reporting forms, and more consistent and structured data management, IAS reporting apps could make much larger contributions to invasive species management worldwide. This, in turn, could save local, regional, and national economies hundreds of millions or billions of dollars annually, while protecting valuable ecological and agricultural systems for future generations.

Research article:

Howard L, van Rees C, Dahquist Z, Luikart G, Hand B (2022) A review of invasive species reporting apps for citizen science and opportunities for innovation. NeoBiota 71: 165-188. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.71.79597

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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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Experiment suggests the best ways to tackle invasive Oregon grape in Belgian coastal dunes

The Belgian coastal dunes, a protected habitat of high conservation value, are getting severely impacted by one of its worst enemies amongst invasive species: the Oregon grape. To help mitigate the detrimental effect of this North American shrub invader, Belgian scientists carried out an experiment to assess the effectiveness of different management methods.

The Belgian coastal dunes, a protected habitat of high conservation value, are getting severely impacted by one of its worst enemies amongst invasive species: the Oregon grape. To help mitigate the detrimental effect of this North American shrub invader, Belgian scientists carried out an experiment to assess the effectiveness of different management methods.

The Atlantic coastal dunes form a dynamic and diverse ecosystem, home to a large number of native species, many of which are regionally threatened. Embryonic dunesshifting white dunes, moss dunes, dune grasslands, and dune slacks are considered high conservation value sites, according to the interpretation manual of European habitats. However, the dunes are highly affected by external influences, and one of the most important threats to their biodiversity are invasive non-native plant species. These plants often colonised the dunes as garden escapes or spread from garden waste dumps or public plantings. Oregon grape is one of the worst invaders amongst them.

Oregon grape growing on sand dune (Belgium).
Photo by Tim Adriaens.

In their study, published in the open-access journal NeoBiota, the scientists, led by Tim Adriaens and Sam Provoost of the Research Institute for Nature and Forest (INBO), focus on the management of the current populations of Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) in the Belgian coastal dunes, where the species has already managed to invade half of the 46 nature reserves and is starting to replace native vegetation. Such a negative effect on the biodiversity of the area requires practical management advice. Due to the high level of infestation of the dunes, the researchers recommend prompt eradication as the most appropriate management strategy. So far, however, it has been unclear which method would show the best effectiveness.

“Invasive shrub species exert an additional pressure on Belgian dune ecosystems, which are already highly fragmented by urbanisation. Oregon grape is one of the worst and should be tackled urgently before it gets out of control,” says Tim Adriaens.

Having compared four previously suggested treatments: manual uprooting, foliar herbicide application, stem cutting followed by herbicide and salt application, the scientists reported herbicide leaf treatment to be the most effective method. Manual removal by digging and treating stems with glyphosate showed medium effectiveness. Treating stems with a saturated salt solution appeared rather cosmetic. However, it’s not that easy to choose which method would be the best to work with, since with herbicide use there are non-target effects on the environment, economy, and society to be considered.

Dune restoration by mechanical removal of dense Oregon grape infestation (left) and leaf treatment of Oregon grape clone with a hand sprayer (right).
Photo by Tim Adriaens.

“Individual clones are best treated with herbicide, large surface areas provide opportunities for landscape-scale ecological restoration, combining invasive shrub removal with sand dune creation,” further explains Tim Adriaens.

In Belgium, Oregon grape was first recorded in the wild in 1906 and naturalised in the period 1920-1950. It has been spreading rapidly since the 1990s. This expansion might be linked to cultivated hybrids and global warming, with the latter leading to a lengthened growing season, suggest the scientists. The species likes calcareous soils. Along the Belgian coast, Oregon grape has mainly invaded grey dunes, scrub and woodland.

Thanks to its numerous blue berries, which are easily dispersed over long distances by songbirds, the plant can appear everywhere within the dunes sites, also in places hardly accessible to managers. With the help of a highly branched root system, the plants attach themselves firmly in the sand, which makes manual pulling of mature plants hardly possible and labor-intensive.

“Dune managers and scientists across Europe should unite to draft alert lists and prioritise established alien species for management,” Tim says in conclusion.

In conclusion, the scientists highlight the importance of an EU-wide collaboration between scientific communities. Invasive species are not bothered by administrative borders and exchanging experiences on impact and management options is crucial to maintain dune ecosystems in good conservation status.

Coastal dunes in Belgium provide unique habitat to many Red listed species.
Photo by Tim Adriaens.

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Original source

Adriaens T, Verschelde P, Cartuyvels E, D’hondt B, Vercruysse E, van Gompel W, Dewulf E, Provoost S (2019) A preliminary field trial to compare control techniques for invasive Berberis aquifolium in Belgian coastal dunes. NeoBiota 53: 41-60. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.53.38183

Long-distance survival: Effects of storage time and environmental exposure on soil bugs

Contaminated soil frequently arrives at the borders through transported items, and is widely recognised as a vector for non-native species, potentially threatening the local agriculture, horticulture and natural ecosystems. However, although soil is the target of management practices that aim to minimise the spread of invasive alien species, crucial knowledge of the biosecurity hazards that can accompany transported soil is currently lacking. While not much is known about the relative survival rates of the transported soil organisms, nor about their establishment probabilities, this information is essential to support optimal policy and management decisions.

soil-trays-on-top-of-research-sea-containersA recent study, led by Mark McNeill from AgResearch’s Biosecurity and Biocontrol team at Lincoln, New Zealand, and published in the open access journal NeoBiota, shows that biosecurity risks from soil organisms are to increase with declining transport duration and increasing protection from environmental extremes. The scientists sought the answer of a simple question – are soil organisms still risky after a year in the sun?

To find out, Mark and his team collected soil from both a native forest and an orchard and stored it on, in and under sea containers, as well as in cupboards. They tested it after three, six and twelve months for bacteria, fungi, nematodes and seeds.

“Soil can carry unwanted microbes, insects and plants, and this study showed that some died faster when exposed, than when protected in a cupboard. This work shows some of the risks presented by soil contamination,” Mark says.

“The results showed that viability of certain bacteria, nematodes and plants declined over 12 months, irrespective of soil source and where the soil was stored. But mortality of most organisms was higher when exposed to sunlight, moisture and desiccation than when protected,” he explains. “However, bacterial and fungal numbers were higher in exposed environments, possibly due to ongoing colonisation of exposed soil by airborne propagules.”

“The results were consistent with previous observations that organisms in soil intercepted from seaports tend to carry less bugs than soil found on footwear,” McNeill notes.

img-1-real-world_contaminated-footwear-2“The research also raised wider questions, because some results were unexpected, including trying to understand why the microbe numbers went up and down like they did in the soil sitting on the sea containers when everything else died off. Was it the circle of life or just new microbe migrants creating new populations?

“We hope that the work will be useful for plant quarantine authorities to assess the risk presented by transported soil based partly on where the soil is found and the age of the soil. This would help authorities to optimally allocate management resources according to pathway-specific risks. Importantly, the study will assist in the development of recommendations for increasing management efficiency and efficacy at national borders.”

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Original source:

McNeill MR, Phillips CB, Robinson AP, Aalders L, Richards N, Young S, Dowsett C, James T, Bell N (2017) Defining the biosecurity risk posed by transported soil: Effects of storage time and environmental exposure on survival of soil biota. NeoBiota 32: 65-88. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.32.9784