NIMBioS Students Create Tool to Stop Invasive Pests

Invasive species—from plants like the kudzu vine to animals like the red scale insect that chomps through citrus crops— threaten the health of vital agricultural and natural lands. The US Department of Agriculture estimates invasive species to be a $120 billion problem annually.

Three undergraduate students have developed a new tool to help fight these pests. Their work was done with UT faculty mentors during a summer research program at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), based at UT.

College students Ashish Gauli, Nathan Wikle, and Ryan Yan have developed a website tool to help in the fight against invasive species.

College students Ashish Gauli, Nathan Wikle, and Ryan Yan have developed a website tool to help in the fight against invasive species.

The tool is ComFlo, an interactive website that can be used to visualize the domestic transport of most common commodities in the United States.

The website is critical in examining domestic transport as invasive species often land unintentionally in new areas via cargo ships, boats, airplanes, automobiles, and other modes of transportation.

Users can specify a commodity or mode of transport as well as origin and destination states and then create a map or table to view the flow of that commodity. They can click on the lines on the map to view the actual tonnage of goods shipped between the two states. Results can be downloaded.

“We originally wanted a quick way to visualize domestic shipping flows in the US, as we had concerns that certain commodities might be vectors for the spread of particular invasive species,” said co-developer Nathan Wikle, a math major at Truman State University. “As we started analyzing and visualizing the data ourselves, we realized that we might be able to save other people a lot of time and effort if we made our work public.”

The red scale insect, a native of Southeast Asia, is an example of an invasive species that has hitched rides on the global transportation network. The bug has been transported on citrus seedlings to all arid and semiarid regions around the world where citrus is grown. In the US, it is localized to California, where it costs an enormous amount to control. Agricultural managers are trying to ensure that it doesn’t move to other states.

The students used data from the Federal Highway Administration to create the website.

“We wanted something that was an interactive system where users can change what they want to visualize and drill down big data to the individual level shipping information,” said co-developer Ashish Gauli, a computer science major at Fisk University.

ComFlo contains about 10 million data records. The FHA commodity shipping database from which the students drew their data contains information on all modes of freight transportation. It reports survey data every five years from 1997 to 2012 and includes forecast data up to 2025.

The students expect the tool to benefit not only the scientific community but also transportation authorities; metropolitan planning organizations; local, state, and regional planners; and anyone else concerned with transportation, logistics, and distribution of goods.

“Prevention is the most cost-effective method for controlling the spread of invasives, but it can be difficult without the proper knowledge,” said co-developer Ryan Yan, a mathematical biology major at the College of William and Mary. “With ComFlo, we aim to provide the information to identify significant pathways of invasion so that managers know which sites to focus their resources on.”

Dan Simberloff, the Gore Hunger Professor of Environmental Science at UT and the students’ co-advisor on the project, said “this tool almost cries out for invasion biologists and policymakers to use it, both to understand the relationship between commodity flows and the movement of introduced species across the landscape and to forecast what predicted changes in commodity flows portend for the future of biological invasions.”

NIMBioS fosters new collaborative efforts to investigate biological questions using mathematical and computational methods.

CONTACT:

Catherine Crawley, NIMBioS communications manager (865-974-9350, ccrawley@nimbios.org)

Ryan Yan (571-269-0920, rcyan@email.wm.edu)

Lola Alapo, UT media relations (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)