I know I write a lot about whether or not we should jump to conclusions about non-native species, but the fact is that there are lots of situations in which invasive species need to GO. Giving them the boot, however, can be a right pain, and more often than not it’s impossible.
But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (I don’t know the imperial system well so I assume that makes sense), and figuring out where an invader is likely to turn up means you can take measures to stop it happening in the first place. This saves a lot of hassle (and money) down the road.
So how do we figure out where invasives are likely to show up? That’s what this paper, which made up the first chapter of my thesis, aimed to find out, by looking at where invasive freshwater fish species have been popping up in Norway over the last 100 years.
In the summer of 2019 I spent a week driving around south-east Norway with my Master’s student Bastian. The plan was to speak to local freshwater managers and get their take on invasive fish species in Norway. I’d never conducted this sort of research before, but I thought I knew what I was in for. Invasive bad, native good, right? More nuanced approaches are for those who are disconnected from the problem, academics like me who could watch from a distance and comment airily.
First interview. What does the term “invasive species” mean to you?
Obviously I expected some combination of “alien to the region”, “brandishes halberds and horned helmets” and “outcompetes the native trout” (trout and its fellow salmonids are really quite popular here). What I got instead (abridged) was a contemplative shrug and a reminder that there are almost no native populations of trout left anywhere in Norway.
Let’s get the humblebragging out of the way – this week a paper that I wrote was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology. It was a paper that I genuinely enjoyed writing, and it gives a tangible outcome – the forecasting of the establishment of invasive species within a region. The applications are obvious. Knowing where an invasive species is likely to pop up lets us detect it early and take action quickly.
Yet that very tangibility of the outcome has resulted in it being the paper of which I most fear the consequences. So in an exorcism of my general nerves (and as a soft disclaimer), I wanted to talk about why forecasting or predicting anything can be such a complicated undertaking for an ecologist.
The natural world provides as with a laundry list of health services, from cleaning the water we drink to providing blueprints for cutting edge medicine. Yet on this list of ecosystem services, carnivores often get left by the wayside. One such carnivore is the spotted hyena, which can be found roaming the outskirts of many towns in eastern Africa. The hyenas are adept scavengers, and clear away massive amounts of discarded meat every year, potentially preventing the spread of carcass-borne diseases like anthrax and tuberculosis.
Yet as with many predators, hyenas have often been feared, whether as a result of their historical association with evil spirits or more recent unfavourable portrayals. In a world where carnivores like wolves, dingoes and bears are often feared and driven off, providing proof of the benefits they bring is crucial. So that’s what today’s researchers set out to do.
If there’s one film that I could perhaps credit for sparking my fascination with the natural world, the it’s The Land Before Time. BUT if we’re going with films that do not feature the most gangly Pachycephalosaurids you ever did see, then it has to be The Lion King. The sweeping landscapes, the (at times literal) fountains of species, the Shakespearian drama, the poor understanding of trophic cascades – it’s got it all.
Distribution and establishment of the alien Australian redclaw crayfish, Cherax quadricarinatus, in the Zambezi Basin (2021) Madzivanzira, South et al., Aquatic Conservation, https://doi.org/10.1002/aqc.3703
While some of us may love certain seafood, and are willing to carry that seafood all over the globe, often the local species are none to happy about it. Such is the case with the Australian redclaw crayfish, a rare example of Australia finally delivering back to the world that which it has received so many of – an invasive species. The redclaw is actually one of nine crayfish that has been introduced to mainland Africa, and if their record (and the records of other crayfish species) is anything to go by, it could mean everything from the spread of parasites and complete ecosystem upheaval to severe damage to the local fishing industry.
It’s crucial to figure out exactly where invasives have spread to, and how quickly they’ve done it. It allows managers and conservation experts in other areas to prepare, and to keep an eye out. This week’s team tried to determine how quickly the crayfish are spreading from their introduction point in the Zembezi River Basin.
With the constant deluge of environmental disasters and newly endangered or extinct species, it’s sometimes easy to think there is only ever bad news when it comes to nature. But there is good news lurking out there, and it’s a source of hope, inspiration and action for many. So let’s have a look at some success stories from the past month.
Image Credit: Rick Heeres, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped
Multiple species-specific molecular markers using nanofluidic array as a tool to detect prey DNA from carnivore scats (2021) Di Bernardi et al., Ecology & Evolution. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.7918
Studying carnivore diet can be a crucial tool to inform both management and conservation of predators and their prey. If we’re going to ensure a carnivore’s survival, we need to know which species it relies on for food, and in what quantities.
Digging into an animal’s stomach isn’t the nicest way to get the crucial data we’re looking for, so non-invasive sampling of scats (that’s science for poop) has for been a more ideal approach to collecting valuable information on the occurrence, genetics, and diet of animals, especially when dealing with elusive and threatened species. Nowadays, DNA-based analyses of scats are allowing researchers to get more and more high-resolution data on predators’ food habits.
What We Did
We developed a DNA-based method to detect prey from wolf scats, taking advantage of the huge leaps the DNA analysis has been through in recent years. We also made use of nanotechnology (specifically Nanofluidic array technology fromFluidigm Inc.), which has been useful for detecting pathogen species in ticks, or traces of herbivores on browsed twigs, but has never applied to detect prey from predator scats!
Starting from the big bank of DNA sequences available online (GenBank, NCBI), we looked at specific areas of the genome, (the mitochondrial genome), in order to tell apart the different target prey species present in the wolf scat. We developed species-specific molecular markers (see Did You Know?) and tested them with reference tissue samples, kindly provided by the Swedish Museum of Natural History. After the protocol development and optimization, we ended up with a set of 80 markers for our 18 target species. We then applied the newly developed molecular method on a pilot sample of wolf scats collected in the field.
Did You Know: Molecular Markers
Since any species’ genome is an incredibly long sequence, scientists have developed more efficient ways of defining what DNA belongs to which species. The motivation is simple – if you’re trying to tell whether a genome belongs to a human or to a chimpanzee, you don’t want to be looking through the 99% of DNA we have in common, you want to go straight to that 1%. That’s why scientists develop ‘markers’. It helps them narrow down their search and identify species much more quickly.
What We Found
The molecular markers we developed did their job well, correctly detecting the 18 prey species, showing an overall good distinction between the tissue samples of the target and non-target species. In other words, this means that a tissue sample taken from a moose was detected by the moose markers but not by the reindeer markers, which is the sign of a successful marker!
When applied to the pilot of wolf scats collected in the wild, the method detected a total of 16 species, comprising wild ungulates (moose, roe deer, red deer, fallow deer, wild boar), domestic and semi-domestic animals (reindeer, cattle, sheep), small prey species (European badger, European hare, mountain hare, Western capercaillie, black grouse), and other carnivores (Eurasian lynx, wolverine, red fox).
While the method detects the target species as we’d like, it cannot distinguish whether predation, scavenging, or territorial marking has occurred. Detection of fox DNA in wolf scats can mean a wolf predating on a fox, a wolf scavenging on a fox, but also a fox marking with its urine on a wolf scat! To partly disentangle this aspect, we are investigating the contribution of scavenging to wolves diet in Scandinavia, with data from GPS-collared wolves.
This molecular method, with its high-resolution prey detection, can help better understanding under what circumstances wolves eat certain prey and how that can affect ungulate populations, serving as a valuable complement to the current GPS technology used to investigate wolf predation. Wolf natural expansion is an ongoing and controversial phenomena in the Northern hemisphere, and any technique that tells us more about their impact is a welcome addition to our knowledge base.
Cecilia Di Bernardi is an ecologist who is currently investigating wolf predation ecology within her PhD at the University of Rome La Sapienza in collaboration with SLU Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. You can follow her on Twitter @c_dibernardi.
I write near constantly about non-native species on Ecology for the Masses, but I mainly focus on the negative impacts that many of them have on native ecosystems. Yet often if we want to really kick off initiatives to manage invasive non-native species, we need to point out the financial burden that many of them bring.
Yet obtaining a simple monetary estimate for invasive species is not easy. A few particularly notorious invasives tend to take up a lot of research focus, which mean that there are many species out there for which our cost estimates could be unreliable. Likewise, we’re likely to have a better picture of the impact of non-native species which have been established longer than ones who have just arrived, and haven’t been sufficiently studied or haven’t spread far enough to have had a measurable impact.
But non-native species aren’t slowing down in their spread anytime soon, so it’s important to figure out what the costs of invasive non-native have been and will be, as well as where there are holes in our knowledge that need to be filled. That’s what today’s study set out to do, by looking at invasive species in the United Kingdom.