Using a self-organizing map to predict invasive species: sensitivity to data errors and a comparison with expert opinion.
Predicting which species are more likely to invade a region presents significant difficulties to researchers and government agencies. Methods for estimating the risk of establishment are often qualitative and rely on consultation with experts and stakeholders. The inherent subjectivity of this process can lead to ambiguities in any estimate of a species' risk of establishment. Using global presence/absence data of insect crop pests employed a self-organizing map (SOM) to categorize regions based on similarities in species assemblages. This technique enabled them to generate a list of species and rank them based on an index of the risk of establishment. However, the sensitivity of this risk list to errors in the presence/absence data has never been tested. We evaluated the sensitivity of the SOM method by altering the original presence/absence data by increasing amounts and compared estimates of risk with those generated by a national coordinating body (Plant Health Australia) utilizing expert stakeholder opinion. The risk list was unaffected by alterations of up to 20% of data over all regions. The error rate we detected in the data was within these limits. Comparison with the expert stakeholder methodology revealed significant differences in the estimates of establishment risk. Further analysis of the Australian data revealed that a number of regions with strong trade links to Australia supported species assemblages similar to those in Australia, suggesting they are possible sources of pest species with high probability of establishment. Synthesis and applications. This analysis confirms that the SOM methodology is a robust tool in the quantification of risk of establishment. In addition, SOMs can deliver a level of objectivity, which can complement current consultative processes employed by many biosecurity agencies around the world, providing a better overall assessment of invasion risk. This assessment can inform research and development funding decisions and incursion management plans for both government and host industries. While SOMs are utilized in this work for the prioritization of pest insects they can potentially be applied to any taxa (pest or native) or at any scale in which the data are available.