Risks and pathways project

A vector for the serious plant pathogen Xylella fastidiosa, which infects native plants and kills some tree crops. In high densities the sharpshooter can weaken plants. It appears to be toxic to spiders. They have piercing, sucking mouthparts and rows of fine spines on their hind legs.
Photo: Alex Wild

Our Risks and Pathways Project set out to identify insect species from other countries that, if they ever reach Australia, have the potential to cause great harm to our natural environment.

Australia is already home to more than enough invasive insects. Colonists like red imported fire ants, electric ants, browsing ants, yellow crazy ants, Argentine ants, African big-headed ants, Asian honey bees, large earth bumblebees and German wasps cost our environment and economy dearly.

Given the difficulties and costliness of eradicating and controlling such insects, one over-riding priority for Australia must be to prevent more harmful species arriving and establishing. To do this, biosecurity authorities need to know which insects overseas represent the greatest invasive risks for Australia and how they are likely to arrive here.

In a project funded primarily by the Ian Potter Foundation, the Invasive Species Council and the McGeoch Research Group of Monash University, we set out to identify high-priority potential insect invaders to Australia that could harm the natural environment, and their likely impacts and pathways of arrival.

Invasion watch profiles

We’ve profiled these insect species. Evidence of harm elsewhere is the most reliable way to predict potential invasion risks. These are insects we definitely want to keep out of Australia.

The project also found that the world’s environmentally harmful invasive insect species are dominated by just one insect order – that of ants, bees and wasps. These social Hymenoptera accounts for 16 of the 17 insect invaders known to be causing environmental harm in Australia.

Invasion watch profile: Social Hymenoptera

About this project

In January 2017 the Invasive Species Council and Monash University School of Biological Sciences, with support from the Ian Potter Foundation, began an environmental biosecurity risks and pathways project.

The two-and-a-half-year project has developed a national priority list of potential insect and plant disease invaders that could harm the natural environment, and identify their likely pathways of arrival and impacts. This work can be used to inform Australia’s biosecurity system to reduce the chance of these species arriving and establishing.

The project establishes a best practice method for identifying priorities that can be applied to other groups of organisms and create an open-source information platform that will allow for regular updates.

The first stage of the project addresses insects. The work will extend to plant pathogens if funds can be secured.

Project rationale

The arrival into Australia of invasive species such as yellow crazy ants, myrtle rust, feral cats or lantana has caused catastrophic damage to its unique wildlife. To slow the rate of arrival of new invasive species we need to strengthen Australia’s biosecurity system.

To prevent pests and diseases that may be harmful to the natural environment from arriving in Australia, a risk-based approach must be adopted.  We must systematically identify those pests and diseases most likely to arrive, understand their pathways and impacts, prioritise them, then improve biosecurity to minimise the chances of their arrival and eradicate them should they arrive.

Invasive species, pathway and susceptible sites diagram.

Determining biosecurity risks depends on understanding the interrelationships between an invasive species, their pathway of introduction and the sites that are susceptible and sensitive to invasion (Figure from McGeoch, M.A., Genovesi, P., Bellingham, P.J. et al. Biol Invasions (2016) 18: 299. doi:10.1007/s10530-015-1013-1; Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

Much of this work has been done for pests and diseases harmful to human health and agriculture. For the environment, only a few of the most obvious risks have been identified.

This deficiency was identified by the 2015 Senate inquiry into environmental biosecurity and the Independent review of the intergovernmental agreement on biosecurity. Recommendation 9 of the unanimous report of the Senate inquiry proposed:

the Department of the Environment work with the Department of Agriculture to develop and publish a national priority list of pests and diseases not yet established in Australia that are of environmental biosecurity concern.

The final report of the review of the intergovernmental agreement on biosecurity said:

Incursions of exotic organisms harmful to Australia’s environment and social amenity are a regular occurrence and have been the focus of recent emergency responses, but national environmental pest and disease risks are yet to be systematically identified. (page 3)

The review recommended that a national priority list of environmental pests and disease be prepared in partnership with system participants by 2020. This recommendation was adopted by all national, state and territory governments in 2019.

The risks and pathways project is an example of the community and research sectors and private philanthropy providing leadership in addressing a major information gap in Australia’s biosecurity system and so prevent significant environmental harm.

Since the project began the federal government engaged ABARES to identify national priority pests and disease and is due for completion in June 2019. There has been liaison between our project team and ABARES.

Project design

1. Evidence-based synthesis to compile available knowledge

Synthesise current knowledge by using accessible evidence to identify species that have potential to invade and harm Australia’s natural environment (risks), pathways by which they could arrive in Australia and assets in danger. Provide results in an open source information platform.

Steps:

  • systematically collate species data.
  • establish and categorise knowledge of species occurrence inside/outside Australia.
  • estimate pathways of arrival and spread and assets at risk.
  • prioritise risks.
  • integrate species and pathways analyses.
  • conduct specialist workshop to fill information gaps.
  • document findings.
  • populate open-source information platform.

2. Expert-based strategic foresight to identify future risks

Use expert knowledge to identify lesser known risks and pathways and to predict future risks and pathways. Identify environmental assets at risk. Provide results of the outcome of this exercise in an open source information platform.

Steps:

  • set foresighting exercise scope.
  • conduct specialist workshop to identify lesser known and currently unknown future risks and assets in danger.
  • synthesise knowledge and provide iterative feedback to workshop participants.
  • document findings.
  • populate open-source information platform.

3. Results dissemination

Make project results available to all parties that have a role in Australia’s biosecurity system.

Steps:

  • consolidate findings.
  • translate research outcomes and communicate project outcomes to stakeholders.
  • publish papers in scientific journals.

4. Project guidance

A project reference group has been established to provide regular input and advice. The group is made up of representatives of the Department or Agriculture and Water Resources, Department of Environment and Energy, CSIRO and the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Preliminary results

The research found that over 240 insect species with strong evidence of environmental harm have invaded other countries, most belonging to the order Hymenoptera, consisting of ants, bees and wasps. Fortunately most of these species have not yet arrived in Australia, but this may only be a matter of time unless we strengthen Australian biosecurity by improving surveillance, border controls, cargo hygiene and contingency planning.

A preliminary project report and recommendations have been released. The project will be finalised with the publication of a series of papers in peer-reviewed scientific publications together with the full project data and methods. It will then be the job of government to undertake detailed risk assessments to determine the Australia-specific threats of each species of concern identified by this project.

Implementing the results

Australia’s biosecurity system is tasked with protecting the country’s environment, people and economy from the arrival of harmful new pests and diseases.

The results of the risks and pathways project can be used to strengthen Australia’s biosecurity system. The project will inform biosecurity priorities including for surveillance, contingency planning, quarantine measures and eradication responses.

While this project is largely funded by community and philanthropy, there remains an important role for government to fund work to identify further environmental biosecurity risks and pathways. The ABARES project to identify national priority environmental pests and diseases that is currently underway will supplement this work but is no substitute for the comprehensive approach needed. Our project’s approach is more expansive and will better allow for future updates by creating a sustainable knowledge platform to inform ongoing risk assessments of species and pathways.

Funding is now being sought to extend the project to other types of threatening organisms, with plant and animal fungi as the immediate priority.

Project contact

For further information about the project please use the contact form.

Project funding

Ian Potter Foundation logoThe Invasive Species Council is extremely grateful for a major grant from the Ian Potter Foundation that has made this project possible.

The federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources and the Queensland Department of Environment and Science has also contributed funds.

The Invasive Species Council and Monash University’s School of Biological Sciences (led by the McGeoch Research Group) are contributing funds and in-kind support.

Further project contributions will allow us to apply the project to other taxa such as plant pathogens. Please contact us if are interested in assisting.

More info