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Invasive Species App Highlighted in Telegram & Gazette

Posted: March 29th, 2012

Spot an Asian longhorned beetle? There’s an app for that

By Karen Nugent TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF

“We’re trying to build a citizen militia.

— Charles Schweik, UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS AT AMHERST

Lena Fletcher

Worcester’s disastrous Asian longhorned beetle infestation four years ago may have been slowed or avoided if the insects, with their distinctive characteristics, had been reported sooner. A new mobile phone app that allows anyone walking outside with a smartphone or iPad to consult a list of invasive plants and insects, snap a photo, and send it directly to a database.

Besides preventing future outbreaks such as the one in Worcester, which led to the loss of 30,000 trees, the information can be used to locate and map potential problem areas using volunteers and their phones.

“We’re trying to build a citizen militia — much like the Minutemen who mobilized in Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War. But today, the enemy is invasive species and citizens can be the Paul Reveres, armed with iPhones or digital cameras, rather than muskets,” said Charles Schweik, associate professor of environmental conservation and public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and one of the project developers.

The free application, called “Outsmart Invasive Species,” was developed through a collaboration between UMass, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation’s forestry program, and the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health at the University of Georgia. It was funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Jennifer H. Fish, director of the forestry program, said besides preventing the spread of invasive plants and insects, the technology can help scientists predict emerging problems before they become full-blown outbreaks, and figure out through mapping technology the locales where such species are increasing.

Mr. Schweik said having extra sets of eyes in the field is especially important for spotting insects such as the emerald ash borer, a metallic-green beetle native to Asia that destroys ash trees. It is not very prevalent so far, but poses an imminent threat.

After downloading the Outsmart application, folks just need to keep a lookout for plants and animals on the lists.

The application currently has two lists with images and descriptions of 22 plants and three insects considered threatening to the U.S. environment. When users tap or push observation keys aligned with each example, a GPS pinpoints their exact location, allows them to take a photograph, give an estimate of the size of the infested area, and record if they saw one bug, or several. There is also an area on the screen for typing notes, and larger maps showing where other species were reported.

Participants who don’t have smartphones, but have digital cameras and Internet access can submit data by registering at www.eddmaps.org/outsmart/join.cfm.

Those data, Ms. Fish said, is then uploaded to the UMass-state forestry database and a national mapping real time online database that documents invasive species distribution.

Non-native, invasive plants and insects cause challenging biological problems because they spread and take over native ecosystems. Once established, invasive species are difficult to eradicate without resorting to chemicals or physically removing trees, like in Worcester. Elm trees in North America were nearly wiped out at the end of the last century by a fungus spread by an invasive beetle. It is important, Ms. Fish said, to find them early on.

An advantage of the Outsmart project, she said, is there is no need for intensive, hands-on volunteer training, because anyone who spends time outdoors, and has a smartphone, iPad, or digital camera and access to the Internet, can take part.

All data are reviewed by professionals and made available to scientists, researchers, land managers, farmers, foresters, and state and national park officials.

Ms. Fish said the idea for the Outsmart project initially came from the University of Georgia’s invasive species center, where the Web database system to store information was developed and where the plant and insect profiles were written. They approached Mr. Schweik, who contacted Ms. Fish, who works in the forestry department’s Amherst field office. It took about six months to develop the application.

“We decided the phone app is a great natural resource for citizen scientists to help solve problems,” she said.

Contact reporter Karen Nugent at knugent@telegram.com.