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June 18, 2007

Scientists propose new warning system for invasive marine species

Marine scientists are studying invasive species in the San Francisco Bay that threaten to spread to other bays along the California coast at the cost of native marine organisms.

Marine ecologist Steven Morgan from Bodega Marine Laboratory at University of California Davis, and marine geneticist Joseph Neigel from University of Louisiana at Lafayette are studying marine invasive species such as crustaceans, mollusks, worms, and fish that live on the sea floor when they are adults. These species begin their lives as tiny larvae that are carried long distances by tides and currents, or in the ballast tanks of ships. Invasions of new areas begin with the arrival of these larvae before any adults are seen.

For this study, scientists are developing and field-testing a promising molecular technique to identify species in plankton samples. This technique can determine patterns of how larvae migrate, and the method is also being used to develop an early warning system for detecting invasive marine species as they spread along the West Coast.

“This method for identifying and quantifying individual species in plankton samples is based on a new tool that promises to be a major advance in cracking the ‘black box’ of larval ecology and tracing the genetic source of an invasion,” says Morgan. “During the first year of this project, we sequenced DNA from adult specimens of invasive species. Based on these DNA sequences, we designed probes that will detect the larvae of these species in samples of seawater. We’re now in the process of testing these probes with the DNA we obtained from the adults, and results will be posted in an online reference database.”

Once researchers have developed standardized methods for the collection and analysis of samples of ballast water and plankton, they will design kits that package the components to perform these methods. These design kits can serve as early-detection tools for resource managers.

Early this summer, Morgan and Neigel will field test samples from estuaries known to harbor populations of the target species such as San Francisco Bay, and from neighboring estuaries where the presence of the species has not yet been reported.

From the samples, researchers will map areas where concentrations of larvae of target species are high around San Francisco Bay, as well as the distributions and approximate rates of spread for the species in eight estuaries along the coast of central and northern California.

Morgan says, “Our ultimate goal is to develop a communications network for rapidly disseminating data on the early detection and spread of non-natives along the coast. This research also saves money spent on the recurring environmental costs of an invasion.”

The University of California Exotic/Invasive Pests and Diseases Research Program funded this research. For more information about this and other research on exotic pests and pathogens, visit www.ipm.ucdavis.edu.

The UC Exotic/Invasive Pests and Diseases Research Program targets research on exotic pests and diseases in California. The program aims not only to improve our knowledge and management of pests that are already here, but also to reduce the potential impact of those pests and diseases that pose a threat to the state. The program is a collaboration between the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program and the UC Riverside Center for Invasive Species Research. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service, funds the program.


Stephanie Klunk, Communications Specialist
UC Statewide IPM Program
(530) 754-6724

Steven Morgan, Professor
Bodega Marine Laboratory
Department of Environmental Science & Policy
University of California Davis
(707) 875-1920

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