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Let’s Get Together: How Invasion Ecology and Biological Control Can Improve Collaboration

accidental invasions versus biological-control introductions

Accidentally introduced invasive species and those purposefully introduced for biological control efforts both have similar ecological needs to successfully become established in their non-native range. Thus, researchers who study invasion ecology and biological control practitioners have much to learn from each other. A new research review in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America finds communication between invasion ecologists and biological control experts tends to go one way, highlighting opportunities for invasion ecologists to benefit more from biocontrol publications and datasets. See details on the stages displayed in this figure. (Image originally published in Schulz et al 2021, Annals of the Entomological Society of America)

By Melissa Mayer

Melissa Mayer

Melissa Mayer

When you think about it, invasion ecology and biological control are two sides of the same coin. One field studies the mechanisms that drive the movement of non-native or invasive species into new habitats and the effects of that invasion on local resources. The other uses intentional, controlled introductions of non-native species as a pest management technique.

In a literature review published in January in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, researchers from Arkansas State University’s Department of Biological Sciences and the USDA Forest Service’s Southern Research Station evaluated how well invasion ecologists and biocontrol practitioners communicate with each other.

A Big Project

Ashely Schulz, Ph.D.

Ashely Schulz, Ph.D.

The project grew out of a course assignment for one of the authors, Ashely Schulz, Ph.D., during her first year of doctoral work at Arkansas State University. (Schulz is now a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management at Colorado State University.) It began with just 33 papers and expanded over the years to encompass 192 papers (102 on invasion ecology and 90 on biological control).

Schulz meticulously categorized the papers’ 11,657 citations. “It took a few hundred hours all together and was certainly one of the most challenging parts of the review,” she notes. “Many citations could not be naturally placed in one category, so I often had to read through the articles, find all uses of the citation, and categorize the citation based on how it was utilized by the primary paper.”

To accomplish that massive task, Schulz color-coded each citation using the Adobe highlighting tool or manual highlighters, assigning them to the following categories: biological control (green), invasion ecology (orange), other control (blue), other ecology (yellow), and non-ecology (pink). She then counted the citations by category, tracking the numbers in a comprehensive spreadsheet, and ran statistical analyses on the raw data.

A Bigger Opportunity

The literature review showed that invasion ecologists mostly cite invasion ecology and other ecology papers, while biocontrol practitioners cite biological control, invasion ecology, and other ecology papers. The authors also looked at the journals cited by the papers and found a 65 to 70 percent citation overlap between the fields.

Taken together, this data reveals that there is some cross-communication between the fields—but it tends to go one way, with biological control practitioners making use of invasion ecology literature but not vice versa. The authors say this highlights an opportunity for invasion ecologists to diversify the research they read and cite and build stronger linkages between the fields.

The authors point out that biocontrol programs generate data that could be a boon for invasion ecologists who want to test hypotheses and study topics like microevolution and predator functional response. So far, few published studies have taken advantage of those datasets.

Looking Forward

Schulz thinks conferences could forge the way for better communication and collaboration by providing opportunities for the fields to come together. “Sessions where invasion ecologists and biological control practitioners can connect, brainstorm together, build future collaborative research projects, develop ideas for how to test hypotheses in invasion ecology using biological control agents, and/or identify grants and other resources that could be shared would help get the creative and collaborative juices flowing,” she explains. “Having sessions dedicated to developing and enhancing collaborative efforts is an easy way to get the ball rolling.”

Open-access publishing could also help. Invasion ecologists may not even know biocontrol data exists if it’s hidden behind paywalls or not publicly available. Bringing it into the open increases opportunities for researchers to access each other’s data and work together. Of course, that will only work if the costs aren’t barriers to scientists who may have to choose between funding open access and funding research.

“My coauthors and I are not the first to call for improved communication between the fields, and we likely won’t be the last, but hopefully we can instigate some movement towards increased communication and collaboration going into the future,” Schulz says.

Melissa Mayer is a freelance science writer based in Portland, Oregon. Email:


1 Comment »

  1. Of course, the invasion needs to be reported before biocontrol is even envisioned, so the invasion papers can’t cite the biocontrol before it starts. My experience is that the folks doing biocontrol are very slack (or shy) in reporting the news of the progress of their introductions in the early years when they have uncertain results, which leaves those of us who fret about invasives in a sort of cliff-hanging state.

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