A planet at risk

Published on September 24th, 2013 | by Daphane Ng

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Workshop gets the measure of pests for biosecurity

By CSIRO

Using maths to make Australia more resilient to invasive pests was the subject of the recent Mathematics of Planet Earth Bioinvasion and Biosecurity.

Giant African snails, anthrax, foxes, carp, African olive trees, rabbits, mimosa, fire ants – it was a worrying list of species that marched across the screen at CSIRO Discovery on 12-13 September at the ‘Mathematics of Planet Earth Bioinvasion and Biosecurity’ workshop.

The free workshop attracted more than 60 delegates and was run by us with the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (national co-ordinators of the International Year of the Mathematics of Planet Earth), Australian National University and the Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry.

Bronwyn Harch, Chief of CSIRO Computational Informatics, was pleased to hear about so many areas of application in biosecurity for the mathematical sciences.

“Mathematics really is fundamental to making our island nation more resilient to invasive species and their effects. It’s important in protecting our health, our industries and our environment, especially with the huge increases in trade we’ve seen in past decades.”

“Maths is informing decisions about which countries’ containers to inspect at which ports, about whether to start or stop an eradication program, or identifying which phase of a pest species’ lifecycle is best to target for a biocontrol agent.

Losses from pest incursion to agricultural production can amount to billions of dollars. Eradication programs cost millions. So there needs to be reliable information and rigour to make optimal decisions about the best biosecurity measures” she said.

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“Son, make sure you focus on your maths and one day this pest-free farm will be all yours.” Image credit: CSIRO

CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship Director Gary Fitt spoke about the importance of biosecurity, maths and how Canberra has contributed over many decades in CSIRO to research on rabbits, Paterson’s curse and other pests. But, just a few weeks ago, Gary was far away in the Kimberley gathering some data of his own.

In his own time Gary volunteers with a group protecting the endangered Gouldian Finch by gathering data on their populations. This colourful species is found only in northern Australia and is one of the magnificent, unique animals at risk when pests invade.

He says that biosecurity is in a sense a game of probabilities and that, in this game, the mathematical sciences are critical in two ways.

“The first is to do with risk. Maths can help us determine the chances of a particular pest arriving and surviving in Australian environments, often in the face of uncertainties. 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 strategies that have the greatest chance of success.”

CSIRO projects highlighted at the workshop included latest work on the calicivirus, web-based tool TAPPAS to model airborne pathogens and pests, and exploring factors affecting the establishment of introduced plants

Conference organiser Bob Anderssen said “The success of the workshop related to it highlighting, in various novel and thought-provoking ways, how mathematics and biosecurity together and independently are protecting Australia and the planet.”

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