Last spring a gangly plant biologist by the name of Eamonn Leonard walked the banks of Georgia’s Brunswick River near the cable lines of the Sidney Lanier Bridge. Leonard wrapped his fingers around an invasive tamarisk, a spiny, red-barked species of cedar that sucks so much salt into the riverbank that it nearly suffocates everything around it.
As a biologist for Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, Leonard spent much of his time tracking and controlling invasive plants in the state’s ecosystem. But with the advent of the smartphone, Leonard has the unique and critical job of training people to do his work for him.
Leonard helps people use a Web-based tracking system for invasive species called the Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System, or EDDMapS. The system relies on data collected by average people who use their phones to snap photos of invasives and report their locations to a central data base.
The marriage between cellphones and nature could be one of the most effective ways to combat invasive species, a problem that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates is costing the country about $138 billion annually. From Asian carp in the Great Lakes to the moss-like kudzu in the southern states to the Asian long-horned beetle in New England to the Burmese python in the Florida Everglades, invasive species are non-native plants and animals that find their way (or are introduced) into an ecosystem and harm the environment, livelihoods or in some cases human health.
“A big part of the management effort to control invasives is spending time searching for them,” explained Joshua Fisher, an invasive species biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Honolulu. “When a species is in such low numbers, you can spend a really long time looking. In fact, the better you are at controlling a species, the harder they are to find to control.”
EDDMapS was started in 2008 by the University of Georgia’s Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health. In 2010, with funding from the National Park Service, the center developed 17 region-specific mobile phone applications for Android and iPhones to track invasive species nationwide.
As of April, the system had over 1.9 million individual records of invasive species from citizen scientists with limited expert knowledge of local wildlife but a passion for being outdoors. So far 12,887 individuals have reported 2,482 different invasive species.
“A lot of times it’s students out in the field that are really good at looking for things,” said Elizabeth Howard Stephenson, a marine biologist who volunteers as an expert verifier for EDDMapS, noting that the untrained eye is often better at spotting new invasives. “They’re the ones turning over rocks. They’re the ones that often make these discoveries.”
The hunt begins when a hiker, gardener or any other kind of outdoor enthusiast uses one of the 17 apps that feed into the EDDMapS database. The person takes a photo of what is believed to be an invasive species and uses the app to flag the organism’s exact location. Then the staff at EDDMapS and the University of Georgia analyzes each submission to verify that the species is actually an invasive.
Once verified, the data is used to paint a picture of the location and the severity of invasive species across the nation. This information is vital for obtaining grants to fund the control and eradication of various species. Joshua Fisher, the biologist in Honolulu, says that engaging the public via apps frees him, and other biologists, to focus on eradicating invasives rather than hunting for them.
Some partner applications, like one released by the U.S. Forest Service to track invasive plants in forests in the South, give the user tips on how to kill the very species they just identified.
“The whole point for the smartphone app is that it be simple and easy to use and still accurate,” said Karan Rawlins, the invasive species coordinator at the University of Georgia. “Part of the idea is that it makes it easy for citizen scientists with a small amount of training to go out and collect data.”
Moving forward, Leonard, the biologist for Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, sees potential in adjusting the app to make it more kid friendly. He is working with students at Savannah College of Art and Design to develop an app called Forager, which would function like a scavenger hunt for elementary and middle school students. The data they collect while playing the game would feed back into the EDDMapS system.
“I mean, they’re looking at their phones all time anyway,” said Leonard. “If we can get them to look up at the forest for a minute while they’re doing it, then we can really do something.”