What is an invasive species? A University of Windsor researcher will use $1.4 million in federal funding to explore that question.
Hugh MacIsaac, a biology professor working in the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, has been named Canada Research Chair in Aquatic Invasive Species. The award carries with it an annual stipend of $200,000 for seven years, which he will use to employ post-doctoral fellows and graduate students to take a new approach to determining the nature of invaders.
Foreign species can move into ecosystems with little upset, but some species are aggressive, harmful and disruptive, Dr. MacIsaac said. To figure out which foreign species may become problematic, researchers generally look at the life history characteristics or physiology of the invader, or they look at what made the ecosystem vulnerable to an invasion.
MacIsaac’s lab will be digging deeper, all the way to the molecular level of the alien species. He will compare and contrast the genetic makeup of local native lady-bird beetles and invasive Asian lady-bird beetles. The invasive beetle causes problems for vineyards and it bites people.
In the lab, MacIsaac and postdoctoral fellow Steve Crookes, determined feeding rates of the two types of ladybugs. It turned out the Asian species eats far more prey than the native insect. Later they’ll take those same insects from the feeding studies and assess the regulation of hundreds of their genes. This includes everything from locomotion to digestion, all in an effort to explain why the invasive beetle is out-performing its native counterpart.
Although MacIsaac and his team mainly study aquatic species, the group decided to use the lady-bird beetles as a first case study because they are important and easy to rear. They will follow-up with studies of invasive and non-invasive fishes as well as invertebrates, which are animals that have no backbone or spine.
“Working with GLIER colleague Daniel Heath, my lab is continuing its work on molecular methods for early detection of aquatic invasive species in ports,” MacIsaac said. “There are still problems to work out with this approach, but we think this molecular technology provides up to four orders of magnitude greater sensitivity to finding rare species in any aquatic ecosystem,” said MacIsaac.
This line of study led MacIsaac to a project stationed far from home. He is going to help determine what species are currently found in major Chinese shipping ports, with the aim of knowing which potential invaders could hitch a ride.
“We simply want to characterize what kinds of species are present in Chinese ports because ships take up water in Chinese ports and move it elsewhere in the world,” MacIsaac said. Chinese ports presently constitute 13 of the 20 largest ports in the world, so what is present in these systems can quickly end up elsewhere.
He said the appointment of Canada Research Chair is a welcome boost for his work.
“The nice thing is the chair provides funding that allows us to do what I think is cutting edge research,” he said. “Hopefully it will allow the University to continue leading edge research and maintain its reputation for doing outstanding work.”