Google Street View Can Help Scientists Monitor Invasive Species

Google Street View could help monitor the spread of invasive species without resorting to labor and time-intensive field work, according to a new study of the pine processionary moth, a pest that destroys pine and cedar trees.

Thaumetopoea pityocampa larvae feast on the foliage of trees throughout southern Europe and the Mediterranean, though the species seems to be expanding its territory north and to higher altitudes recently. The caterpillars make distinctive, highly visible silk nests in the trees they live in, so they are relatively easy to track from afar.

The researchers, from France’s National Institute of Agronomic Research, found that in a region of 18,000 square miles in France where the caterpillars had set up shop, data collected by examining Google Street View was 96 percent as accurate as traditional field observation in identifying where the species had spread.

The method does have a few drawbacks. Though Street View covers a wide range of locations, it isn’t comprehensive everywhere, and in a smaller region analyzed in the study, it only had a 46 percent accuracy. Nor would Street View be a good way to track all species. Evidence of the pine processionary moth’s habitat is highly visible from tree-lined roads, but more hidden species would be much harder to map.

The full study appears in PLOS ONE.

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