Colorado State University Leading International Network of Information to Combat Invasive Weeds and Insects

Colorado State University scientists are leading a project to help researchers around the world pool their collective knowledge to stamp out invasive species such as weeds and insects.

The project will help scientists predict the behavior of invasive species and the ecology and evolution of such invasions. The international network of scientists includes ecologists and evolutionary biologist. It is funded by a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

"Understanding and identifying the factors that enable introduced species to proliferate and become invasive has emerged as a fundamental challenge to ecologists and evolutionary biologist across the globe. This research coordination network will unite scientists from around the world who are looking at these issues," said Ruth Hufbauer, lead researcher on the project and a scientist in Colorado State’s Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management. "By joining researchers together, we can bring information together to collectively focus on understanding biological invasions."

Invasions of foreign species – called biological invasions by researchers – instigate rapid and damaging ecological and evolutionary changes. Biological invasions can alter ecosystem processes, community structures and plant and animal population dynamics. The challenge of understanding factors that enable biological invasions is a fundamental question for ecologists around the world.

While scientists now better understand how invasive species begin to take hold and change the ecology, it is not always clear what governs whether introduced species remain harmless in their new environment or if their population growth rates, sizes and densities overshadow the native range. Scientists do know, however, that these invasions influence several biological factors from both the invading species and the native ecosystem.  

The network will bring experts together through annual gatherings where researchers can develop a framework based on the latest information and coordinate research projects; through the exchange of research among groups working on similar issues; and through educational symposiums at scientific meetings and a Web site.

The group also will work to better connect and educate the public about the consequences to the environment and ecosystem of invasive species in part by developing lesson plans for high schools.

Scientists studying invasive species usually focus on four hypotheses about how the invaders take hold in a new community, but relatively little research focuses on the idea that all four of these hypotheses may be true and may all work at once to allow biological invasions.

The main hypotheses outline a variety of factors that impact the success of invasive species.

For example, researchers have evidence that invasive species may be more successful in ecosystems that are populated by relatively few native species than in ecosystems with a rich diversity of native species. Invasive species in new ecosystems may not encounter predators and diseases that impact them, allowing them to grow unchecked. Some invasive species may also evolve to adapt to a new environment, and this might be accelerated by natural cross-breeding with native species or with other introduced species, bringing in new genes.

"While scientists tend to cluster around several core hypotheses, these ideas are typically evaluated separately," Hufbauer said. "Yet, we see evidence that there are many important links between these individual ideas, and these links have not been fully developed. By coordinating information across the globe, we hope to be better able to focus on finding a holistic understanding of the nuances of biological invasions."