Invasive species have become a growing environmental challenge, causing serious harm to ecosystems. An interdisciplinary team from New York University (NYU) and the University of Western Australia is utilizing robotic fish to curb the damaging effects of invasive species by scaring the invaders enough so that they reproduce less.

For the study, the invasive species in question are mosquitofish. The enormous environmental impact that mosquitofish have unleashed has led the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to list them amongst the world’s 100 most-harmful invasive exotic species.

Related: Invasive longhorned tick could spread disease across the US

What makes mosquitofish a successful invasive species? For one, in their new environments, they no longer contend with their primary predators, the largemouth bass. This allows mosquitofish populations to burgeon. Secondly, mosquitofish have high genetic variability, permitting them to acclimate and adapt quickly. They spread exponentially throughout their new environment, often displacing local fauna by out-competing for the same food or even preying on them.

To address the challenge of invasive mosquitofish, lead researcher Maurizio Porfiri of NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, together with a team of collaborators, has conducted biomimicry experiments in the laboratory using biologically inspired robotic fish. The robot fish act as predators, simulating largemouth bass, to provoke mosquitofish stress responses. Stressing the invasive mosquitofish depletes their energy reserves and, in turn, disrupts their reproduction rates.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study using robots to evoke fear responses in this invasive species,” Porfiri explained. “The results show that a robotic fish that closely replicates the swimming patterns and visual appearance of the largemouth bass has a powerful, lasting impact on mosquitofish in the lab setting.”

Porfiri is no stranger to biomimetic robotics. For over a decade, Porfiri has designed and deployed robotic fish, studying their interactions with live fish to glean new insights into animal behavior. This recent research moves the scientific community closer toward realizing the potential of aquatic robots in assisting with environmental protection efforts.

“Further studies are needed to determine if these effects translate to wild populations, but this is a concrete demonstration of the potential of robotics to solve the mosquitofish problem,” confirmed Giovanni Polverino, Forrest Fellow at the University of Western Australia’s Department of Biological Sciences and lead author of the paper. “We have a lot more work going on between our schools to establish new, effective tools to combat the spread of invasive species.”

+ Journal of the Royal Society Interface

Image via NYU