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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Predicting movements of invasive species

Invasive species cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars every year. The speed of an invasion is a big concern for documenting these invasive species. Determining the rate at which these species enter a new territory allows for a prediction of the rate of invasion.

Alan Hastings, UC Davis researcher and mathematical ecologist, has been working alongside Brett A. Melbourne of the University of Colorado to study the uncertainty in species invasion.

The study conducted involved red flour beetles. The beetles were attracted to wheat flour in experimental and enclosed environments with linked “habitat patches.” Data was collected from 30 separate landscapes composed of identical patches of land with identical conditions in each. The patches contained an initial count of 20 red flour beetles. After 13 generations, which took about a year and a half, the beetles spanned a range of 10 to 31 patches.

“The beetles gave us an opportunity to perform multiple replicates under highly controlled conditions, allowing us to study the variability of the rate of spread,” Hastings said. “We use the beetle as an easy way to manipulate and study model organisms.”

In this sense, the beetle allowed for a more simplified look at species but also provided a reference point.

The study determined that the rate of an invasive species spreading is highly variable. Being able to determine the speed and predict the movements of the species allows researchers to prepare.

“We now know that invasions are less predictable than we thought. This will allow us to take this uncertainty into account,” Melbourne said.

Currently invasive species pose a threat to populations that aren’t adequately prepared to contain these species. This study aims to foresee invasions prior to their occurrence to fend off potential harms.

“We shouldn’t be lax about a species that appears not to spread fast because it might suddenly spread dramatically,” Melbourne said.

“We (Brett Melbourne and I) were recently awarded a five year [National Science Foundation] grant for about $800,000 to continue studies using a similar experimental setup, both here in Davis, and in Colorado, to look at range limits and then at the potential effects of climate change on species,” Hastings said in an e-mail interview. “This grant uses stimulus money and will again serve as a way to train undergraduates as well.”

The lab relies a lot on undergraduate assistants to work day to day on these problems. With the grant, the researchers have high hopes of paving a path to make predictability of invasion more accurate. Diminishing the high level of uncertainty is the first step, and that seems to be the goal of future studies.

 

SADAF MOGHIMI can be reached at features@theaggie.org. 

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