DEC’s Bureau of Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health Research Scientist Jessica Cancelliere
By Megan Plete Postol
Research scientist Jessica Cancelliere works within the New York State Department of Conservation’s Bureau of Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health (BISEH) to research, monitor, and combat the impact of invasive species in the state. BISEH provides expertise, assistance and action where invasive species are a threat.
Cancelliere manages the ecosystem health diagnostic lab (formally the forest health diagnostic lab). Her role is multifaceted and there are two components to the lab – diagnostics and research.
In recognition of Invasive Species Awareness Week now through June 12, we talked with Cancelliere about her work.
Q: What does your role entail?
A: One part is diagnostics, meaning diagnosing forest pests and diseases both for the public and other DEC staff and regional offices. Forest Health spends a lot of time surveying the state (for invasives) and one of our jobs in the lab is to help them diagnose what they find. It is also a free service that we offer the public. If people are having tree health troubles in their woodlot, for example, or an insect in their house they cannot identify, they can send us samples or an email and we will help diagnose the problem.
The other part of what we do is research into forest health issues in general. What we focus on in the lab is early detection methods. Basically trying to figure out how we can find invasive species on the landscape earlier than ever before so that we can respond to them more effectively. The other part of our research is trying to ascertain whether what we are doing is the right thing in terms of management. We often assess our management of a particular pest or disease to make sure that we are methods are working. Similarly, we try to implement new methods. As new methods come from the academic community, we are the liaison. We will try them out in the lab first, and if we find that they are sound and they work well, we will recommend that our programs start managing those invasives in that particular way.
Q: What invasives are you currently monitoring/working on?
JC: At any given time, the lab is monitoring several. One of the newer invasives we are doing a lot of work on is beech leaf disease, which is a newer invasive that we think is caused by a nematode that was likely introduced from Asia. There is still a lot that is unknown about this particular disease but it is spreading across New York state extremely fast and causing a lot of mortality. It kills beech tree saplings in under five years. Other trees it kills in six to ten years. We have long-term monitoring plots established that are part of a whole regional network that includes other states and programs. We are trying to see how fast the disease is spreading, the impact it has, and how it affects tree health. We also have long-term monitoring plots for white pine decline. We monitor a lot of different invasives and even native pests and pathogens.
We do research with oak wilt, in terms of trying to find better ways to find it. One of our bigger research projects over the last couple of years was using insect traps, rather than looking for infested trees on the landscape through aerial survey or ground survey which can be tricky because sometimes there is only one or a few trees infected. We put traps out to catch the beetles that spread the disease across the landscape. Then we send those beetles to Cornell to be tested for the oak wilt fungus. So, we devised this new early detection strategy of trapping the vectors to find the disease.
The lab does not do management of invasive species. That is the other facet of Forest Health (within DEC). We just do the research on early detection, new methods, and management techniques.
We also have an exciting new project. We have lots of traps out every year to catch specific pests, such as Southern pine beetle, or the oak wilt vector beetles I mentioned. We get a lot of by-catch in those traps, meaning a lot of non-target species that we are not necessarily looking for that end up in the traps. No one in the lab really has time to go through them all and identify them. It would take years for an entomologist to get through those samples. So rather than just throwing those away we send our by-catch to a lab in Germany that will barcode (identify) them. They will send us a list of species that are present in those samples. That is a really fun project that several states are participating in, including Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and New York. We are hoping that passively we may end up collecting species that we don’t even know are here yet or that might not even be on our radar.
Q: Are you involved in monitoring Asian jumping worms?
A: The jumping worms so far have been mostly monitored not by state agencies but by the actual researchers, many of them out of Yale University. A woman named Annise Dobson has done a lot of the work in that. We just started to monitor it. Unfortunately it seems like they (jumping worms) are most likely everywhere. Documenting locations is important but at this point it is more about getting the word out about how to keep preventing more movement of the worms. They are in isolated pockets but have permeated most of the state. Unfortunately it is one of those things that there is not that much you can do about it, which brings up another point. We are increasingly focusing on things that we can actually do something about. That is shifting our work from managing one particular species, such as spongy moth for example, to trying to promote better forest management practices and forest resilience. So that as these forests continue to be inundated with one pest after another, they are in the best position possible to withstand those infestations. So rather than managing Southern pine beetle or spongy moth, you mange the trees and forests.
Q: What would you say is the biggest threat right now?
A: I would honestly say climate change instead of a particular species. What climate change is doing is changing weather patterns in small ways that is not only enabling invasive species to be more successful but we are also seeing a lot of native pests and pathogens that were once harmless that are now behaving differently because they are proliferating more. As an example, in the Adirondacks at this time of year you might started seeing needle discoloration of white pine. And soon all the needles will fall off and the tree will look really defoliated and then it will kind of fill in over the summer. This is a long term trend we have been seeing for years. It is called white pine needle damage, and it has been really impactful, and yet it is not an invasive species. It is a native complex of fungal needle diseases that we once completely harmless. There is nothing on record over the past several hundred years of it causing any problems. But now what is happening is that increased precipitation in the spring is allowing these fungi to grow really fast and do really well and it is causing widespread decline of white pine trees. So we have climate change making things worse, so I would say that is the biggest threat.