Cutting-edge tool predicts impact of invasive species

Mathematics meets ecology to provide badly needed research tool

New statistical tool can help ecologists predict how Asian carp and zebra mussels will compete with native species for food and breeding grounds.

Ecologists will be able to use a powerful new statistical tool developed at the University of Waterloo to more accurately predict how native fish will be affected by invasive species like Asian carp.

“Ecology is increasingly becoming a quantitative discipline. We as ecologists don’t always have the mathematical or statistical background necessary to solve quantitative ecological problems.”  

HEIDI SWANSON, Waterloo biology professor

She and another Waterloo biologist Michael Power, worked with Martin Lysy, a professor of Statistics and Actuarial Science at Waterloo to create the new tool called, nicheROVER.

Heidi Swanson

Results of statistical tool published in journal Ecology

The results of the nicheROVER were recently published in the journal Ecology. Authors also include PhD student Ashley Stasko and scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Unfortunately, the mathematical tools used in ecology have not kept up with technical and scientific advances in the field. For example, nearly all “off-the-shelf” statistical analysis packages map only two of the most standard stable isotope ratios.

“I was lucky enough to meet Martin Lysy at a new faculty social when we both arrived at University of Waterloo and we developed a really great collaboration,” says Swanson.

Invasive species cost us more in environmental, economic, and health-care related damages than all other natural disasters combined. Being able to predict how a species ‘fits’ into an environment — the so-called species niche — can help scientists prevent, predict, and manage the next big invasion.

Scientists can now analyse multiple parameters of a species niche

Swanson says the nicheRover gives ecologists a new way to analyse multiple factors and identify the overlap between species. Niches are a fundamental concept in ecology and factors or parameters studied include where a species lives, eats and spawns.

Results from nicheROVER can show whether a species occupies a specific part of the ecosystem or if it overlaps and potentially competes directly with other species for food, space and spawning grounds.

New Waterloo tool is more flexible

In recent years, ecologists have had to rely on statistical packages that allow for analysis in only two dimensions but the nicheROVER software allows scientists to analyze any number of niche parameters. Swanson cautions that although nicheROVER is more flexible and more powerful than other niche analysis tools, it’s up to the ecologist to get the most meaningful results. 

The project was funded in part by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada.