• classification;
  • invasive screening;
  • ROC curve;
  • TREE models;
  • Weed Risk Assessment

Abstract  Risk assessment systems for introduced species are being developed and applied globally, but methods for rigorously evaluating them are still in their infancy. We explore classification and regression tree models as an alternative to the current Australian Weed Risk Assessment system, and demonstrate how the performance of screening tests for unwanted alien species may be quantitatively compared using receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curve analysis. The optimal classification tree model for predicting weediness included just four out of a possible 44 attributes of introduced plants examined, namely: (i) intentional human dispersal of propagules; (ii) evidence of naturalization beyond native range; (iii) evidence of being a weed elsewhere; and (iv) a high level of domestication. Intentional human dispersal of propagules in combination with evidence of naturalization beyond a plants native range led to the strongest prediction of weediness. A high level of domestication in combination with no evidence of naturalization mitigated the likelihood of an introduced plant becoming a weed resulting from intentional human dispersal of propagules. Unlikely intentional human dispersal of propagules combined with no evidence of being a weed elsewhere led to the lowest predicted probability of weediness. The failure to include intrinsic plant attributes in the model suggests that either these attributes are not useful general predictors of weediness, or data and analysis were inadequate to elucidate the underlying relationship(s). This concurs with the historical pessimism that we will ever be able to accurately predict invasive plants. Given the apparent importance of propagule pressure (the number of individuals of an species released), future attempts at evaluating screening model performance for identifying unwanted plants need to account for propagule pressure when collating and/or analysing datasets. The classification tree had a cross-validated sensitivity of 93.6% and specificity of 36.7%. Based on the area under the ROC curve, the performance of the classification tree in correctly classifying plants as weeds or non-weeds was slightly inferior (Area under ROC curve = 0.83 ± 0.021 (±SE)) to that of the current risk assessment system in use (Area under ROC curve = 0.89 ± 0.018 (±SE)), although requires many fewer questions to be answered.