GAINESVILLE -- A team of scientists led by a University of Florida researcher is embarking on a two-year project to forecast how invasive species might roam beyond Florida and into the southeastern United States in response to climate change and other factors.
From iguanas to feral hogs to cane toads, the team will predict how more than a dozen invasive animal species might slither, amble or hop their way into new territory over the next 50 years. This effort is funded through a grant from the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center at North Carolina State University. The UF-led team includes scientists with the UF Water Institute, U.S. Geological Survey, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The project, titled “An Assessment of Invasive Species Range Shifts in the Southeastern U.S. and Actions to Manage Them,” aims to help wildlife agencies stay ahead of the curve and allocate resources strategically, said Brett Scheffers, assistant professor in the UF/IFAS wildlife ecology and conservation department, and the project’s principal investigator.
“When species start moving into a new area, it’s not like a solid wave that covers all the ground available,” Scheffers said. “A better comparison would be the way veins and arteries in the body branch out in different directions and spread out in an uneven, patchwork way. We want to know what that branching network will look like.”
Invasive species’ paths take on this meandering, branching pattern because animals must take routes that suit them in terms of climate and landscape.
“Right now, many of our invasive species in Florida are constrained to the southern part of the state. The northern part of the state gets too cold for our invasive reptiles and amphibians, which account for many of our invasive species in Florida. Climate change may start poking holes in the temperature barrier,” Scheffers said.
At the same time, the nature of the landscape itself determines how animals move through an area.
“More developed areas have few animals already living there and present less competition for some invasive species. They also tend to have less shade and are warmer, which can be advantageous to reptiles especially — think of iguanas in South Florida, for example, which have adapted well to urban life,” Scheffers said.
However, that’s not true of all reptiles. Burmese pythons, for example, tend to stay away from urban areas in Florida.
To predict where invasive species might go, Scheffers and the research team will develop a model that combines what scientists currently know about invasive species - their native ranges, what kind of environments they can live in, how climate affects them - and various climate and land use scenarios.
While scientists have worked to predict invasive species’ movements due to climate change in the past, this latest project is more comprehensive than prior efforts, Scheffers said. “Including landscape characteristics adds another layer to our analysis,” he said.
“We hope to provide wildlife managers with a better sense of where species are likely to go, which will help them be more strategic when it comes to managing them,” Scheffers said.