Robot fish will help to control invasive species - Seeker's Thoughts

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Robot fish will help to control invasive species

Scientists found a way to protect the ecosystem from invasive species, researchers are testing the use of robotic fish for population control of these invasive species.
A robotic fish could scare and stress out an invasive species, enough that invaders lose weight in lab experiments. The new finding suggests that robots might one day help control such pests in the world.

Invasive species are plants and animals that are brought to a new habitat and bully the native species to the point where many can’t survive.

They are usually hardier, more demanding and reproduce much faster. Since they are new to habitat, they don’t have any natural predators. That means there aren’t any species to stop them from taking over an area.
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These so-called invasive species are all too often responsible for widespread devastation in the ecosystem, wiping out the entire species and disrupting the natural balance. Now researchers are testing the use of robots for population control of these invasive species.
Scientists focused on the Mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis). Which may now be the most widespread freshwater fish in the world. These small, hardy, extremely aggressive fish were introduced in the early 20th century to help gobble up mosquito larvae --- they can eat up to 167% of their body weight daily.

However, they have often outcompeted and decimated many native fish and amphibians’ populations.
                                                                      credits - IUCN                                       
According to the study co-author Maurizio profiri, mechanical engineer – “Mosquito fish are everywhere and there are tons of them”. Attempting to capture mosquitofish by hand “is the same as trying to empty the ocean with a spoon.
He said – if we leave traps in the wilds then mostly, we will capture many other species together with mosquitofish, with the risk of doing more than good for the environment. 
Efforts to use pesticides to combat this invasive species ended up hurting native fish, the researchers added.

How it will work?
They created a robot whose silicone body was shaped and painted to closely resemble a largemouth bass, the main predator of mosquitofish. More than 80% of the fish juvenile largemouth bass consume in their native waters are mosquitofish. 

The robot was controlled through a rod extending from the bottom of the fish tank, and a computer used a camera to guide the robot.
The results show that robotic fish that closely replicates the swimming patterns and visual appearance of the largemouth bass have a powerful, lasting impact on mosquitofish in the lab setting.
The team exposed groups of mosquitofish to a robotic largemouth bass one 15- minute per week for six consecutive weeks. The robot’s behavior varied between trials, spanning several degrees of biomimicry. 

Notably, in some trails, the robots were programmed to incorporate real-time feedback based on interactions with love mosquitofish and to exhibit “attack” typical of predatory behavior –


A rapid increase in swimming speed. Interactions between the live fish and the replica were tracked in real-time and analyzed to reveal correlations between the degree of biomimicry in the robot and the level of stress response exhibited by the fish. Fear- related behaviors in mosquitofish include freezing (not swimming), hesitancy in exploring open spaces that are unfamiliar and potentially dangerous, and erratic swimming patterns.

As expected, mosquitofish exposed to aggressive robot behavior resembling real-life predators showed the most amount of fear. They also lost weight, which suggests they were stressed out and had lower reserves of fat. Fish with lower energy reserves are less likely to pursue reproduction or survive long in the wild.

Researchers say their plan is to selectively stress the bad guys so that they will be less problematic for native and endangered species. Hopefully, the consequence if this stress is that mosquitofish will reproduce less and their number will decline over time in areas where they should not be present.

Where do invasive species come from?

Invasive species may enter a new environment through many routes. Some are transported to new places and established intentionally, but with unforeseen consequences. Beach vitex was planted in coastal North Carolina in the 1980s as an ornamental plant for coastal homes. 

However, the plant began to overtake native species after it became established. The plant also does not have an extensive root system that holds sand in place as native plants do. As it spreads, the plants hasten dune erosion by removing plants that secure the sands of the dunes.
Some invasive species were actually brought in as unsuccessful attempts to control other invasive species.

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In the 1800’s rats that came to the virgin island ships infested the sugar fields in the island, causing massive crop damage. Farmers brought in mongoose as a predatory control for the rats.

 However, the rats are nocturnal and sleep in trees, whereas the mongoose is diurnal and cannot climb trees, so they were not successful at eradicating the rats. As a result, the islands now have two invasive species content.
Many other examples exist of invasive species hitching rides on cargo to enter new habitats. For example, the fungus known as chestnut blight came from chestnut trees that were imported from Japan in the late 19th century. 

The Asian tiger mosquito was introduced accidentally in tires shipped into the United States from Asia. Naval shipworms entered the San Francisco Bay on cargo ships in the early 20th century and caused significant damage to piers and harbors.
Once they enter a new place, many different components of the habitat may facilitate their spread. Roads, for example, provide a pathway for invasive to move through new areas. The habitat alongside the road is clear of native vegetation, which makes it easy for fire ants to build mounds in this area. 

When areas are cleared for grazing, the lack of native vegetation means less competition with existing species and can make it easier for invasive to establish themselves.

Invasive species is a growing problem for environment and health

There are more than 10,000 alien species present in Europe, and the rate of new introductions has accelerated and is still increasing. Atleast 15% of these alien spices are known to have a negative ecological or economic impact. However, non-native species – for example, some food crops – can also have huge benefits.

The first report, the impacts of invasive alien species in Europe, details the effects and spread of some species. The second report, invasive alien species indicators in Europe discusses the methodical approach in bringing this data together.
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The most common reason species are introduced elsewhere is for horticulture, while others may be brought into new areas for other reasons including farming, hunting, and fishing, or as pets the report notes. 

Transport is not always intentional- for example, zebra mussels have stowed away in the ballast water of ships to proliferate in European lakes.
Increasing trade and tourism in recent decades may have an end to increasing numbers of alien species. Climate change may also play a role in the spread of these species, the report says, making some areas more favorable to plants and animals originally from elsewhere.

Impacts on human health
For humans, one of the most dangerous effects of invasive alien species is as a carrier of the disease. The Asian tiger mosquito has been linked to more than 20 diseases, including yellow fever chikungunya fever. 

It has come to Europe mainly through the intercontinental trade in used tires and is now prevalent in several southern European countries, especially Italy. Climate change projections show that the mosquito will likely extend its range further north in the coming years.

Climate change is also enabling the spread northward of the common ragweed. The plant is originally from North America, the seeds first coming to Europe in mixes if grain intended as bird feed. It is a powerful trigger of hay fever and other allergies.

Changing landscape is another result of invasive alien species. For example, the red palm weevil is destroying a large number of palms in the Mediterranean region, transforming the green spaces in cities.

There are also effects on ecosystems that indirectly affect humans. In some cases, ecosystems altered by invasive alien species may be less able to provide important ecosystem services that support human activity. 

For example, the pollination carried out by honeybees may be affected by invasive alien species – the yellow-legged hornet, native to Asia has been found to devastate beehives in France.

Invasive alien species cost Europe around 10 billion Euros per year, according to one estimate species such as the Spanish slug, now found in most European countries, can devastate crops. Other species such as the pervasive zebra mussel can also cause high costs by fouling water filtration plants and water cooling reservoirs of power plants.

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