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Learn to spot plant invaders with citizen science program

By Carolyn Lindell
Special to the American-Statesman
Burr clover, an invasive plant, grows in the bluebonnet patch at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Being able to spot invasive species can help scientists track the spread.

Watch out for those invaders! That’s what eagle-eyed volunteers do when they are on the lookout for Johnson grass, giant reed or many others that might be intruding in their area.

Participants in the Invaders of Texas Citizen Scientist program are trained to spot harmful invasive species and report their observations.

“Having the data and knowing where (these species) are is always helpful,” said Ashley Morgan-Olvera, director of Research and Education/Outreach at the Texas Invasive Species Institute at Sam Houston State University. The location information can be mapped, the observations can be validated, and then efforts can be made to try to combat the spread, she said.

The institute is overseeing texasinvasives.org, which includes the citizen scientist program, Morgan-Olvera said. The website also has an extensive database of invasive species and other information.

University of Texas student Jay Falk examines giant reed grown at the school's Brackenridge Field Lab in 2009. The invasive plant from Spain takes water normally used by native plants.

Texasinvasives.org is a collaborative effort among various state and federal agencies and other groups to help manage and prevent the spread of nonnative, invasive species in the state, the site says.

An invasive species is not native to a particular ecosystem, where it can cause harm to the environment, economy or human health, according to the website. “An invasive species grows/reproduces and spreads rapidly, establishes over large areas, and persists. …This includes a wide variety of plants, insects and animals from exotic places,” it says.

“They can take over a whole environment,” among other problems, Morgan-Olvera said. “That’s really why they are most unwelcome,” and they are also costly to try to control or manage.

Andrew Aneke, left, and Damani Alexcee remove invasive plant species from the riverbank in San Marcos in 2016. All kinds of groups can take the training to help identify invasive species. The Texas State football team planted native species along the San Marcos River in 2016 to help with past flood damage and future flood control and erosion.

Citizen scientists provide much-needed help. “The more trained eyes watching for invasive species, the better our chances of lessening or avoiding damage to our native landscape,” the site says.

A person can train and act as a citizen scientist individually or be affiliated with a group that has a local leader, Morgan-Olvera said; these volunteers also can organize events, such as workdays.

Online training currently involves reading brief chapters and taking short quizzes. This is expected to be updated this year to be more interactive, she said. Training also has been offered at in-person workshops. Such workshops have been curtailed recently because of the pandemic, but they are expected to resume, she said.

The trainings include an introduction to invasive species and the threats they pose, safety working in the field (bring water and sun protection, for example), data collection, how to take useful digital images of the species, and information about invasive pests such as the emerald ash borer.

The site lists the “particularly worrisome” invasive plants by region. Observation reports about specific invasive species can be made through the texasinvasives.org site or via the TX Invaders mobile app.

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The invasives database has detailed information about many of the species, including a description and photo, native lookalikes, ecological threat and its U.S. habitat. Johnson grass, for example, is described as a “perennial with vigorous rhizomes. Coarse grass with reddish to purplish-black panicles, to 2 m tall. Plants can rapidly develop colonies. Johnsongrass is considered one of the 10 most noxious weeds in the world.”

The site also offers tips for how to avoid spreading the problem. For example: “Prevent carrying invasive species on your cars, bicycles and motorcycles. Check vehicles for seeds and pieces of plants.” Similarly, gardeners are advised, “If you don’t know it, don’t grow it.”

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Since the citizen scientist program started about a decade ago, more than 3,500 people have been trained, Morgan-Olvera said. As well, during that time, about 22,500 observational reports have been made, she said. Demographics for the training have varied, including Girl Scouts troops, master gardeners and others.

“Our planet is losing much of its biological diversity,” said volunteer Kathie Herrick via email. She took the training with her spouse in fall of 2018. Herrick, of The Woodlands, says they have been helping to target the air potato.

She has found the citizen scientist program worthwhile. It is one way to "find your little piece of the earth to take care of,” she said.

Having more people taking the training is useful. “That’s really the most important thing,” Morgan-Olvera said, “that people know what an invasive is and what to do about it.”