Unlocking the potential of Google Earth as a tool in invasion science
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Distribution data are central to many invasion science applications. The shortage of good information on the distribution of alien species and their spatial dynamics is largely attributable to the cost, effort and expertise required to monitor these species over large areas. Virtual globes, particularly Google Earth, are free and user-friendly software which provide high-resolution aerial imagery for the entire globe. We suggest this has enormous potential for invasion science. We provide suggestions and tools for gathering data on the distribution and abundance of invasive alien trees using visual interpretation of Google Earth imagery, and propose how these data may be used for a number of purposes, including calculating useful metrics of invasions, prioritising species or areas for management and predicting potential distributions of species. We also suggest various practical uses of Google Earth, such as providing a tool for early detection of emerging invasions, monitoring invasions over time, and to help researchers and managers identify suitable field study sites. Virtual globes such as Google Earth are not without limitations and we provide guidance on how some of these can be overcome, or when imagery from Google Earth may not be fit for invasion science purposes. Because of Google Earth’s huge popularity and ease of use, we also highlight possibilities for awareness-raising and information sharing that it provides. Finally, we provide the foundations and guidelines for a virtual global network of sentinel sites for early detection, monitoring and data gathering of invasive alien trees, which we propose should be developed as part of a ‘‘citizen science’’ effort. There has been limited use of virtual globes by invasion scientists and managers; it is our hope that this paper will stimulate their greater use, both within the field of invasion science and within ecology generally.