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Most protected areas are vulnerable to invasive species

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June 8 (UPI) — Protected areas are helping preserve biodiversity by providing a buffer against invasive species, but new research suggests many wildlife preserves and national parks are vulnerable to invasion by non-native plants and animals.

Much attention is paid to the habitat destruction and pollution caused by humans, but people have also severely damaged global ecosystems through the introduction of invasive species.

“These species may kill or compete with native species, or destroy habitats, amongst other impacts,” Tim Blackburn, professor of invasion biology at the University College London, said in a news release. “Invasions by alien species are regarded as one of the top five direct drivers of global biodiversity loss, and aliens are establishing themselves in new areas at ever increasing rates.”

“Protected areas are a cornerstone of biodiversity conservation, but aliens don’t know where their boundaries lie,” Blackburn said. “It’s important to know whether these areas might protect against the spread of invasive species.”

For the new study, scientists analyzed the territorial conquests of nearly 900 terrestrial animal species, including mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates, that have successfully colonized regions outside of their native ranges.

Next, researchers looked at how many alien populations were established inside or near protected areas, such as wilderness areas and national parks.

While only 10 percent of the planet’s 200,000 protected areas are currently home to invasive species, researchers found alien species living within a few dozen miles of 99 percent of the surveyed areas.

What’s more, their analysis — published Monday in the journal Nature Communications — showed most protected areas across the globe feature habitat and ecological conditions suitable to nearby invaders.

The protected areas most likely to host invasive species were those with a larger human footprint index — parks and preserves with large human populations nearby and where humans frequently come and go. Parks that were newer and bigger were also more likely to host non-native species.

“At the moment most protected areas are still free of most animal invaders, but this might not last,” said study co-author Li Yiming, research ecologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Areas readily accessible to large numbers of people are the most vulnerable. We need to increase efforts to monitor and record invasive alien species that people may bring into protected areas, deliberately or by accident, especially damaging species like the American bullfrog, brown rat and wild boar.”

Scientists found new evidence that high concentrations of biodiversity rendered protected areas immune to invasion by non-native species.

“If alien species continue to spread — and we would expect many to do that — many more protected areas will have their boundaries reached, and potentially breached, by these alien species,” Blackburn said.



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Researchers, growers seek vanilla production in Florida

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ORLANDO, Fla., Aug. 11 (UPI) — Growers and researchers in Florida hope the aromatic vanilla bean can provide a lucrative, high-margin crop for the state’s farmers.

The University of Florida is heading research into vanilla, which comes from a tropical orchid and carries a hefty price around the world.

The goal is to determine how well the plants grow in Florida’s subtropical climate, where the dominant crop — citrus — has suffered from destructive diseases and hurricanes that have shut groves and put growers out of business.

Already, the university reports that hobbyists, bakers and breweries are calling to line up more vanilla production.

“The interest in this as a new crop is huge,” said Alan Chambers, assistant professor of tropical plant genetics at the university’s research station south of Miami.

“Our biggest problem right now is growers can’t find enough plants. We have people calling and asking to buy the beans we’re growing, and we say you have to wait a couple of years.”

Chambers knows that vanilla can grow in Florida because four native species of the vanilla orchid plants exist, but none of the native types produces authentic vanilla.

So, he’s started with the most common commercial species, vanilla planifolia, the beans from which Madagascar and Mexico export in large quantities. Chambers has 150 of the plants ready to distribute to community center gardens and other growers as far north as Tampa.

Florida will never be able to compete globally for vanilla due to the cost of labor, but there’s a big demand for specialty vanilla, he said.

“We’d be looking at extremely high quality, similar to the limited vanilla production in Hawaii,” Chambers said. “We’re hearing from brewers, herbalists, bakers and aroma extractors.”

Chambers also helped a Miami area grower, attorney Abrahm Smith, obtain 800 of the vanilla plants for Smith’s small, 8-acre farm. They take up about one-quarter of an acre.

“It’s a hobby farm for me, but if vanilla works, it will be great because it has a very high-profit margin,” Smith said. “I should be able to make as much from that quarter-acre as I do from 6 acres of fruit trees we’ve planted.”

That high margin is what drove the crop to become one of Madagascar’s top exports, but the bean is not processed on the island. Much of the bean crop is processed when it reaches the United States, where it is primarily used as a food and drink flavoring.

The price of vanilla has fluctuated wildly in recent years with weather conditions in Madagascar, from $600 per 2.2 pounds of beans in 2018 to $350 for that amount in June.

The United States is the largest importer of vanilla beans. Given the high value of the crop, and Florida’s struggles with citrus, the University of Florida funded Chambers’ research with a $75,000 grant.

Chambers also advises a separate project led by private industry that collects funds from interested growers to provide thousands of the vanilla plants from a nursery in Orlando.



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Math models developed by Alan Turing help scientists explain bird behavior

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Aug. 11 (UPI) — In a new study, researchers in Britain used math models developed by famed mathematician Alan Turing to figure out why flocks of long-tailed tits separate themselves into different parts of their habitat.

Many birds form what are called home range patterns, but scientists have struggled to explain why non-territorial passerine segregate themselves.

For the study, scientists at the University of Sheffield tracked the movements of long-tailed tits across the woodlands they called home. After collecting enough data for patterns to emerge, researchers used Turing-inspired models to determine what causes the segregation.

The models deployed by Sheffield researchers were similar to those Turing developed to show how patterns in nature, like stripes of a zebra or a leopard’s spots, can emerge naturally from a uniform state.

The new analysis, published this week in the Journal of Animal Ecology, showed long-tailed tits, when segregating themselves across the landscape, were less likely to avoid places where they had previously interacted with relatives.

The passerine birds, however, were more likely to steer clear of places where they’d previously encountered larger flocks. The birds also showed a preference for the center of the woodlands.

“Mathematical models help us understand nature in an extraordinary amount of ways and our study is a fantastic example of this,” Sheffield doctoral student Natasha Ellison, lead author of the new study, said in a news release.

Scientists had previously used Turing models to understand the movement patterns and distribution of territorial animals, but this is the first time the same mathematical models have helped researchers understand the spacing and movements of a non-territorial species.

“Long-tailed tits are too small to be fitted with GPS trackers like larger animals, so researchers follow these tiny birds on foot, listening for bird calls and identifying birds with binoculars,” Ellison said.

“The field work is extremely time consuming and without the help of these mathematical models these behaviors wouldn’t have been discovered,” Ellison said.



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Increasing indigenous property rights could help save the rainforest

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Aug. 11 (UPI) — To protect the Amazonian rainforest, new research suggests full property rights for tribal lands be extended to Brazil’s indigenous communities.

For the study, researchers at the University California, San Diego, used satellite data of vegetation coverage in the Amazon rainforest to study deforestation patterns between 1982 and 2016. Scientists compared the results of their mapping efforts with Brazilian government records of indigenous property rights.

The analysis, detailed Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed land owned fully and collectively by local tribes featured a 66 percent reduction in deforestation rates.

“Indigenous traditional land use, based on collective ownership, has been associated with the preservation of a land’s biodiversity,” researcher Kathryn Baragwanath, postdoctoral candidate in the political science department at UCSD, told UPI.

One study published earlier this year showed land stewardship by indigenous communities was associated with greater levels of carbon sequestration.

Baragwanath said these positive ecological impacts are strengthened when indigenous communities have the full scope of property rights and legal tools to defend tribal lands from commercial interests.

“These legal rights ensure that the boundaries can no longer be contested, the territory is registered in the national land registry, the government is constitutionally responsible for protecting the territories and the territorial resources are considered to belong to indigenous peoples,” she said.

When conducting their analysis, Baragwanath and researchers accounted for variables besides indigenous property rites — including proximity to roads, mining projects and rivers, elevation, population density and rainfall.

In Brazil, the process of gaining full property rights, called homologation, is complex — at least partially because government agencies there have been slow to review applications, researchers said.

Often, as the process plays out at a snail’s pace, commercial interests will start illegal mining or logging, so they can later argue that they’ve established “productive use of land,” researchers said.

To protect the Amazon and the region’s remaining forests, Baragwanath suggests Brazil’s government strengthen their environmental agencies.

“Public policy should focus on granting full property rights to the indigenous peoples who have not yet received their rights,” she said.



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