Invasive Alien Species (IAS) pose a global threat to ecosystems, biodiversity, and economies. Often introduced unintentionally by human activities, these non-native species disrupt local ecosystems, causing extensive environmental and economic damage, amounting to billions of dollars annually in various regions. IAS have far-reaching impacts, including displacing native species due to resource competition, causing habitat degradation, and disrupting ecological equilibrium. These consequences impact both natural ecosystems and human activities, such as agriculture and forestry. In Europe, the economic toll from IAS on agriculture, forestry, and fisheries exceeds €12 billion euros per year.
As the consequences of IAS continue to intensify, there is an urgent need to find effective and efficient approaches to manage and control them. This crisis demands innovative solutions and proactive strategies, and that's precisely what the National Biodiversity Future Center (NBFC) in Italy is delivering.
The NBFC: A Path to Biodiversity Preservation
Established under the Italian National Recovery and Resilience Plan, the National Biodiversity Future Center, leads in biodiversity conservation across the Mediterranean and southern Europe. Its core objectives involve conducting interdisciplinary research to tackle biodiversity decline in various environments while promoting sustainable development through biodiversity initiatives. The center's activities include employing advanced techniques like mathematical modeling and remote sensing to enhance the control of IAS.
Defending Biodiversity at the Alta Murgia National Park
In a groundbreaking study, researchers at the NBFC and collaborators have devised a strategy to combat IAS within the Alta Murgia National Park in Southern Italy. Situated within the Natura 2000 network, this park suffers from the invasion of Ailanthus altissima, a highly invasive plant species commonly referred to as the tree of heaven. This invasion poses a severe threat to the park's distinctive biodiversity and the ecological services it provides. A. altissima has gained notoriety for its robust growth and its capacity to outcompete native vegetation, further exacerbating the disruption of the park's delicate ecological balance, impacting native flora and fauna.
The Integrated Framework
This groundbreaking approach integrates three key components.
Researchers have developed a spatially explicit optimal control model based on a reaction-diffusion equation. This model incorporates a Holling II type functional response term, simulating the density control rate of A. altissima. Crucially, it considers budget constraints, pinpointing optimal resource allocation to minimize the IAS density.
Very high spatial resolution satellite images and machine learning techniques were employed to obtain land cover maps for estimating the initial distribution of A. altissima and its habitat suitability within the park. These data-driven insights significantly enhance the accuracy of the mathematical model.
Data and expertise collected as part of previous projects were instrumental in calibrating and validating the model. Additionally, parameters derived from expert insights and empirical data played a pivotal role in enhancing the model's precision.
The Power of Integration
This integrated framework offers a multitude of advantages:
- Precision: By fusing mathematical modeling with real-world data and expert knowledge, the approach provides a highly accurate depiction of the IAS dynamics.
- Cost-Effectiveness: The model optimizes resource allocation, ensuring that control efforts are directed where they'll have the greatest impact. This cost-effective approach is vital when resources are scarce.
- Early Detection: Beyond eradication efforts, the model can monitor the spread of invasive species over time, enabling early detection and prompt intervention.
- Adaptability: Tailorable to specific invasive species and ecosystems, the model empowers managers to effectively tackle diverse challenges.
Conclusion: A Roadmap for Preserving Biodiversity
IAS represent an imminent threat to our environment, economies, and biodiversity. Addressing this complex issue necessitates innovative, data-driven solutions. The integrated framework developed in the Alta Murgia National Park showcases how mathematical modeling, remote sensing, and expert knowledge can synergize to optimize control efforts.
Looking Ahead, the research conducted in the Alta Murgia National Park is a significant leap forward in the battle against IAS. As IAS continue to threaten our ecosystems, integrated approaches like this will prove invaluable to conservationists, land managers, and policymakers.
Collaboration, innovation, and the fusion of diverse expertise will be our most potent tools in safeguarding our planet's ecosystems and biodiversity. By uniting and harnessing the power of data and technology, we can protect our natural world for generations to come. Together with the NBFC, we are shaping a future where biodiversity thrives, hand in hand with a resilient planet.
Project funded under the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP), Mission 4 Component 2 Investment 1.4 - Call for tender No. 3138 of 16 December 2021, rectified by Decree n.3175 of 18 December 2021 of Italian Ministry of University and Research funded by the European Union – NextGenerationEU; Project code CN_00000033, Concession Decree No. 1034 of 17 June 2022 adopted by the Italian Ministry of University and Research, CUP B83C22002930006, Project title “National Biodiversity Future Center - NBFC” .
Cover photo courtesy of Francesca Casella, CNR-ISPA, Italy