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Biodiversity Crime: Tracking Invasive Species Like Criminals

Stopping invasive plants and animals from destroying ecosystems can be difficult, but when you apply modern crime-fighting techniques to the problem, tracking down the perps gets a whole lot easier.

Biodiversity Crime: Tracking Invasive Species Like Criminals
Raccoons aren’t one of the hunted invasive species, but they look like they’re wearing a mask, and that makes them look like criminals. Eric Isselee/Shutterstock

Like criminals, invasive species have a nasty effect on the neighborhood. They cost a lot of money to deal with, create large amounts of data for police offers to sift through, destroy habitats, and are often hard to keep track of. Because of these similarities, researchers at Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences in the U.K. decided to try hunting for invasive plants and animals with the same techniques used on criminals. Turns out, it works.

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Geographic profiling is a spatial modeling technique originally developed to prioritize long lists of suspects (sometimes numbering in the hundreds of thousands) in serial crime cases. The tool uses the locations of linked crime sites to figure out where the criminal lives–not the exact address, but close. Police can then check suspects based on their “geoprofile,” pushing unlikely culprits further down on the list.

Queen Mary researchers decided to use the same geographic profiling technique on invasive species, with encouraging results. Sites colonized by the invasive species were considered “crime sites,” while the source of the invasion was analogous to the criminal’s home. The team analyzed historical data from 53 invasive species in the U.K., including everything from the Japanese oyster to the Norway spruce tree. After comparing geographic profiling results with other tracking techniques, they found that geographic profiling outperformed competing methods.

The researchers explain in the paper: “Our study shows that geographic profiling can correctly predict the sources of invasive species, using as input their current locations. Crucially, it can also do so in the early stages of invasions with data that is possible to acquire quickly, and when control efforts are most likely to be effective. Geographic profiling outperformed other widely used spatial statistics such as the centre of minimum distance, spatial mean and spatial median in locating invasion sources.”

Considering that the U.S. expects to spend $50 million in the coming year fighting invasive Asian carp alone, there’s a dire need for better invasive species profiling techniques. This seems like a good start.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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