CSI: Invasive Species Unit

A CAFNR researcher is building a roadmap for finding clues about invasive species in our national parks

It’s no secret that Missouri’s waterways have been invaded by non-native carp species over the last decade, but did you know that invasive, non-native snails also have completely altered aquatic ecosystems in some parts of the U.S.? What would our lakes and rivers look like if we could deploy technology that detects the tiniest traces of these organisms long before they take over an aquatic system?

That’s a future that CAFNR faculty Allison Pease is hoping to help create. Pease is an assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources who studies aquatic ecosystems, and she is partnering with the National Park Service to help protect some of the nation’s most precious water resources from invasive species.

“This work is really a lot like a crime scene investigation,” Pease said. “You’re looking for these little clues that an invasion is about to start.”

A light-skinned woman with long, brown, Curly hair wears a red top with a floral print with a river behind her. Allison Pease

Pease explained that a number of technological advances that could help in this investigation have been developed in recent years, and her project with the National Park Service will help develop a plan for the best ways to use these technologies in aquatic systems in or connected to NPS lands throughout the Midwest.

In Missouri, this will include the Ozarks National Scenic Riverways and the portions of the Missouri River that run along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Site.

Pease hopes that early detection will allow NPS staff to take swift action to prevent the invasion from occurring, as even the smallest animals or even aquatic plants can have major impacts.

“In a place like the Ozarks, a concern is that you have a lot of native species that we don’t see anywhere else,” Pease said. “If you see an invasive species that occupies the same kind of space, it can crowd out the native species. This is especially true with things like snails and mussels because they eat a lot of algae. An invasive snail or mussel can make a lot of changes in the food web.”

One technology Pease will be considering is known as environmental DNA. Environmental DNA is gathered when a water sample is taken and then analyzed for the tiniest traces of aquatic animals and plants. It can detect something as tiny as a single scale and identify the potential invader.

Other technologies include things like remote sensing imaging for vegetation via drones or satellites. This allows scientists to quickly survey large tracts of land for changes, and Pease believes they may be of particular use in riparian zones, a term used to describe land surrounding a body of water that has a direct effect on the water system itself.

The NPS has tasked Pease with surveying these types of technologies and identifying which ones will work well in the Midwest. It is supporting her project with a $269,000 grant that will allow Pease to hire another researcher to help with the project, which is expected to take four years to complete.

Pease and her colleague will also make a plan for how to collect the needed data, and they may provide opportunities for everyday citizens and NPS park users to help in the effort.

“There certainly may be ways to use citizen science,” she said. “I can imagine that being a big part of the effort.