Combining modelling and remote sensing techniques to monitor and control the spread of invasive species

When the Internal Joint Initiative was instigated by LifeWatch ERIC in 2019 to build the next generation of Virtual Research Environments (VREs), informaticians at the ICT-Core in Spain and the Service Centre in Italy started working closely with scientists involved in biodiversity and ecosystem research into Non-indigenous and Invasive Species (NIS) across Europe.  

Of the five validation cases that helped shape the architecture and workflows of the VRE, this page outlines the work done on Ailanthus altissima, an aggressively invasive tree of Asian origin, that over time has become a problem in the Alta Murgia National Park in southern Italy. 

Ailanthus altissima

Ailanthus altissima is one of the most highly invasive plants in Europe. It reproduces both by seeds and asexually through root sprouting. The winged seeds can be dispersed by wind, water and machinery, while its robust root system can generate numerous suckers and cloned plants. Ailanthus altissima typically occurs in very dense clumps, but can also occasionally grow as widely spaced or single stems. This invasive plant can colonise a wide range of anthropogenic and natural sites, from stony and sterile soils to rich alluvial bottoms. Due to its vigour, rapid growth, tolerance, adaptability and lack of natural enemies, it spreads spontaneously, out-competing other plants and inhibiting their growth

Over the last few decades, Ailanthus altissima has quickly spread in the Alta Murgia National Park (southern Italy) which is mostly characterised by dry grassland and pseudo-steppe, wide-open spaces with low vegetation, which are very vulnerable to invasion. Ailanthus altissima causes serious direct and indirect damages to ecosystems, replacing and altering communities that have great conservation value, producing severe ecological, environmental and economic effects, and causing natural habitat loss and degradation. The spread of Ailanthus altissima is likely to increase in the future, unless robust action is taken at all levels to control its expansion. In a recent working document of the European Commission, it was found that the cost of controlling and eliminating invasive species in Europe amounts to €12 billion per year. Two relevant questions then arise: i) whether it is possible or not to fully eradicate or, at least, to reduce the impact of an invasive species and ii) how to achieve this at a minimum cost, in terms of both environmental damage and economic resources.

A Life Programme funded the Life Alta Murgia project (LIFE12BIO/IT/000213) had, as its main objective, the eradication of this invasive exotic tree species from the Alta Murgia National Park. This project provided both the expert knowledge and valuable in-field data for the Ailanthus validation case study, which was conceived and developed within the Internal Joint Initiative of LifeWatch ERIC.

At the start of the ongoing eradication program a single map of A. altissima was available, dating back to 2012. Due to the lack of data, predicting the extent of invasion and its impacts was extremely difficult, making it impossible to assess the efficacy of control measures. Static models based on statistics cannot predict spatial–temporal dynamics (e.g. where and when A. altissima may repopulate an area), whereas mechanistic models incorporating the growth and spread of a plant would require precise parametrisation, which was extremely difficult with the scarce information available. To overcome these limitations, a relatively simple mechanistic model has been developed, a diffusion model, which is validated against the current spatial distribution of the plant estimated by satellite images. This model accounts for the effect of eradication programs by using a reaction term to estimate the uncertainty of the prediction, also providing an automatic tool to estimate a-priori the effectiveness of a planned control action under temporal and budget constraints.

This robust tool can be easily applied to other geographical areas and, potentially, to different species.

The developed workflow will soon be available on this page.

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The Bulgarian National Distributed Centre is represented by the  Agricultural University-Plovdiv.

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