An Ounce of Prediction, a Pound of Cure

Oregon State University researcher looking for pest on a potato leaf at the OSU Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center Branch in Hermiston, Oregon.

New grant to develop dynamic modeling systems aims to predict potential introduction of harmful pests

By Heidi Happonen


n agriculture, the one constant is change. The ability to adapt to unforeseen challenges is the hallmark of any successful farmer or rancher. Whether its responding to drought or managing impacts of new diseases, the goalpost of progress seems to always be moving in agriculture.

Perhaps no more so than with pest management.

Imagine, therefore, the power that could be unleashed if ag leaders could know where and when new invasive pests may arrive?

Researchers in the College of Agricultural Sciences Department of Horticulture and the Oregon IPM Center recently received a nearly $1 million grant from USDA NIFA AFRI to do just that. The research and extension work this grant funds aims to help improve efforts to predict the seasonal activities (phenology) and geographic distribution of invasive pests using a combination of applied models and citizen science. This will help inform critical decisions in predictive pest management. For example, installing traps in the right place at the right time of year can help ensure that a new invasive species is not missed.

Brittany Barker, an ecologist, and Co-PI on the project, explained that while computers have the ability to deliver more sophisticated models and maps, the end results have not been captured to make use of the models to their fullest potential. Combining data from Cooperative Ag Pest Surveys led by the Department of Agriculture with phenological studies into the development of organisms, this project aims to develop a single platform that can model many types of pest and weed species.

But making better use of existing data so that it is actionable is no small feat.

For example, there are currently parametrized models developed for 16 insect species, such as the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB)—a beetle recently found in Oregon whose larvae feed underneath the bark of ash trees and cause tremendous damage. However, most of these insects are not yet present in the U.S., or the models have not been well verified using field observations. The researchers will develop new models for high priority pests including spotted lanternfly, Northern giant hornet, cheatgrass (a.k.a. downy brome), and brown rot of tree fruit crops.  Additionally, citizen science data available through the US Phenological Network and other communities will allow the researchers to validate predictions of where and when new species are most likely to appear. This knowledge will help ag leaders find and combat them before it is too late.

“Once you see an invasive pest in your field, it’s almost always inevitably too late,” said Len Coop, an entomologist, and the PI on the project. “The goal of this research is to start making a plan to address the invasive species before they are seen.”

If this project is successful, the results of the new approach to adaptive modeling will also be applicable to other areas of agriculture, such as the management of biological control agents and species of special concern.

In addition to the comprehensive data modeling work, a great deal of the success of this project depends upon the combined powers of both research and extension, as citizen scientists play a significant role in the collection and distribution of the data that the modeling system will use to predict new invasive species patterns.

“We are talking a lot about the importance of first responders, like those in Master Gardener™ or Extension and Field Scouts,” Barker said. “We are really focused on the validation of models and citizen scientists can provide the feedback needed to fill in gaps and validate predictions.”

The dynamic modeling system that will be developed with this work is particularly critical as the need to respond to climate change increases. Warming temperatures and changing precipitation regimes are increasing population growth and overwintering survival rates for many species of invasive insects, plant pathogens, and weeds in the US, facilitating northward and elevational range expansions and increasing pest pressure during the growing season. This project will provide some of the first insights into climate-driven changes in pest activities and distributions and help inform critical decisions before it’s too late.

Leonard Coop, Associate Professor and Assoc. Director for Decision Support Systems at the Oregon IPM Center (Principal Investigator)

Brittany Barker, Research Associate (co-Principal Investigator)

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