A coffee with...

Published on September 11th, 2013 | by Jo

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Dr Gary Fitt

Fresh from a stint watching wildlife in northern Australia, CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship Director Dr Gary Fitt spoke to us about why maths is important in protecting Australia’s unique flora and fauna from invasive pests.

Q: You’ve said we don’t want Australia to become a zoo. What do you mean?

A:  Zoos have collections of animals from all around the world. While it’s fun to visit a zoo, we don’t want Australia to become one. Australia already has its own magnificent native flora and fauna. We’re an island continent and our wildlife really is unique in the world.

Take the Gouldian Finch for example. I’ve just spent a week in the Kimberley region of WA observing and counting these spectacularly colourful little birds. These are birds found only in northern Australia, nowhere else in the world and they are listed as endangered. It would be tragic if these birds were lost from nature because of the introduction of a pest or disease.

With the world so connected these days by air and sea, the risks are real that Australia could become a zoo of introduced species alongside a reduced set of native ones.

Zoos are a great place to visit but we don’t want Australia to become one.

It’s not just animals either. Our plants are also unique. Botany Bay, where Captain James Cook landed, is named after the science of plants because so many unusual plant specimens were collected there by Joseph Banks. Unfortunately, our bushland today can become a new home for invasive plants, like the garden escapees lantana and privet.

We don’t want invasive animals, plants or even micro-organisms from other parts of the world coming in and getting a foothold. Australia’s ecosystems would change forever, affecting health and agriculture. We need to protect our own biodiversity as much as we can. Our biosecurity research is key to that. It’s in our interests and future generations’ interests to get that right.

Not all Aussie wildlife is as spectacular as the Gouldian Finch, but it’s unique and precious. Image: Cheryl Mares

Not all Aussie wildlife is as spectacular as the Gouldian Finch, but it’s unique and precious. Image: Cheryl Mares

Q: You’ve enlisted mathematicians and statisticians to work on this research. What do they bring to the field of biosecurity?

A: Biosecurity is in a sense a game of probabilities. In this game the mathematical sciences are critical in two ways.

The first is to do with risk. Maths can help us quantify the chances of a particular pest arriving and surviving in Australian environments, often in the face of considerable uncertainties? Where are the risks greatest that an invasive species might get a foothold and then spread? Better understanding the risks and pathways can help to optimise investments in the right kind of surveillance systems. For example, we have projects which quantify the riskiest pathways of entry in Australia, where to focus surveillance in ports and which ships of types of cargo.

The second is to do with response. Once a pest has arrived here, how do we get rid of it or limit its spread? We need to choose those strategies that have the greatest chance of success. Do we attempt eradication? Or opt for longer term containment. Once implemented, we need to know whether those methods are working. By making decisions based on statistical inference from the available data, rather than gut feel or vested interests, we can help policy makers and operational Biosecurity players better target funds for response. Another role for mathematical skills is in modelling the life cycle stages of invasive species which might be most vulnerable to biological control – successful past programs with skeleton weed illustrate this well.

Q: It’s Canberra’s centenary year. How has research in Canberra contributed to our understanding of bioinvasion and biosecurity?

A: Canberra is and has been home to some of Australia’s most famous research into invasive pests.

Canberra was where the ANU’s Frank Fenner worked on myxamatosis with CSIRO’s Ian Clunies-Ross and Macfarlane-Burnett. Mid-last century, they famously injected themselves with the myxoma virus, brought in to control the country’s rabbit plague, to prove it wouldn’t infect humans. The introduction of myxamotosis was a big step forward in controlling a pest that had devastated huge areas of farmland and was costing millions in lost production.

We’re continuing our work here to improve the effectiveness of the next generation rabbit biocontrol agent, calicivirus.

 

Dr Gary Fitt be giving a public lecture in Canberra Thursday 12 September to provide an update on the breadth of Biosecurity issues facing Australia, the breadth of our research in biosecurity in response and especially how maths is key to helping us protect our people and environment from the threat of pests and diseases.

CSIRO is hosting a workshop on Biosecurity and Bioinvasion with AMSI, ANU and DAFF at CSIRO Discovery Centre from 12-13th September.

This event is part of the International Year of the Mathematics of Planet Earth


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