A recent study by Jorge Soberón, research scientist at the KU Biodiversity Institute, illustrates the power of Species Distribution Modeling.
The problem begins in the 1920s, when prickly pear cacti were an invasive species in Australia and huge fields of the plant took over the native landscape. To combat the cacti, the Australian government shipped in cactus moths. The cactus moth, Cactoblastis cactorum, native to Argentina, had a taste for prickly pear and helped control the problem for many years. However, by 1989, the cactus moth had island-hopped its way from Australia to Florida, where hundreds of species of endangered cacti live. Scientists worried that the moth would destroy cacti populations in Florida and then move on to Mexico, where cacti are an important part of the agricultural economy and an essential food source for cattle and people.
Scientists from various fields of study needed to know, ‘Where is it going to attack?’ According to Soberon, “We had to predict the distribution of this little moth ahead of time.” The cacti of concern were spread throughout so many countries that scientists needed to know where to focus their efforts to protect them.
Cactus in the most vulnerable areas are being protected thanks to Soberón's modeling research.