NSF Grant Funds New Understanding of Plant Invasions at Larger Scales

Chinese tallowtree--shown here in bloom--is an extremely competitive invasive plant, and is listed as a state noxious weed in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Photo by Jim Miller, courtesy of Bugwood.org.
Chinese tallowtree–shown here in bloom–is an extremely competitive invasive plant, and is listed as a state noxious weed in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Photo by Jim Miller, courtesy of Bugwood.org.

Purdue University and U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) researchers recently received over $700,000 from the National Science Foundation to explore regional and continental patterns of non-native plant invasions. Chris Oswalt, research forester with the SRS Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) unit, and Qinfeng Guo, ecologist with the Eastern Forest Threat Assessment Center, serve as co-principal investigators on the project, with Songlin Fei at Purdue University as principal investigator.

Invasions of non-native plant species pose major threats to ecosystems across the U.S., causing widespread ecosystem degradation and economic losses. Although invasions by exotic plants have been a major topic of research for two decades now, applicable results have been limited to the plot (maybe county) level due to the lack of long-term, large-scale data.

The project uses a new research framework based on plant life histories that includes information about the invader, the system invaded, and factors that facilitate invasion—all examined across larger scales of time and space. “The research pulls together multiple large spatially-explicit sets of data—such as the long-term data collected by FIA and universities—that have never before been combined,” says Oswalt. “For the first time, we’ll have regional and continental views of where plant invaders are and where populations are expanding.”

The project will enable scientists to develop a new generation of accurate and widely applicable models for regional-scale invasion forecasting. “Ultimately these new models will allow natural resource managers to examine ‘what-if’ scenarios in both the short term (5-10 years) and long term (50-100 years),” says Oswalt. “This will help them in their work to prevent and mitigate economic and ecological damage caused by invasive species.”

An overarching goal of the project is to establish a regional network of scientists and practitioners who will actually develop a regional-scale model to predict invasions under the new framework, which should also be easily applied to invasive species studies in other regions and on other continents. The new models will also support advances in ecological research by providing scientists with the framework to test current theories about invasion and come up with new hypotheses.

For more information, email Chris Oswalt at coswalt@fs.fed.us

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