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Might Dogs and Drones Be The Answer to Ambrosia Beetle?

March 18, 2015

In just a few weeks, redbay ambrosia beetles will be on the move in Florida, a major concern for the state’s multimillion dollar avocado industry. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has been campaigning to SAVE THE GUAC since the beetles first appeared in Florida.

LaurelWiltDetectorDog

Photo courtesy of FIU.

Researchers at Florida International University believe teaming drones and dogs could advance the fight to stop a deadly fungus spread by the beetles, which first appeared in the United States in 2000. They carry the fungus Raffaelea lauricola, which causes laurel wilt, a vascular disease in trees of the laurel family, which includes avocado trees. More than 90 percent of trees die within six weeks of infection.

Detection is a major challenge. Diseased trees can begin to wilt within two weeks. By the time symptoms are visible, the fungus has likely spread to nearby trees. This is a particular problem in commercial groves, where trees are planted close together.

Enter dogs and drones.

DroneLaurelWiltFIU

Photo courtesy of FIU.

FIU’s beetle hunt begins with drones, which carry thermal digital imaging instruments that can locate stressed trees before symptoms are visible. While they can identify stressed trees, the drones cannot identify the cause of the stress. That’s where the dogs come in.

The researchers recently deployed three specially trained canines in a grove where the beetles were suspected. The dogs identified three infected trees, though they were not yet exhibiting symptoms. The trees were confirmed as infected through DNA testing.

Redbay

The redbay ambrosia beetle.

The program was developed by Florida International University Provost and Executive Vice President Kenneth G. Furton and Biological Sciences Professor DeEtta Mills. Their research was funded by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Furton, a forensic chemist, has spent most of his career studying scent and canine detection; Mills, a forensic biologist, specializes in DNA research.

“This isn’t just a Florida problem,” Furton said. “From California to Latin America, there are growing concerns about how to respond to this aggressive disease.”

savetheguaciconcopyCurrently, diseased trees must be removed, along with surrounding trees. More than 6,000 of Miami’s 74,000 avocado trees have been destroyed due to laurel wilt. Early detection could mean fewer surrounding trees would require extraction. In some cases, diseased trees could even be treated if the laurel wilt is detected early enough.

The research is funded by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Furton and Mills believe the unique detection program could have far-reaching applications for the entire agriculture industry.

Click here to read the news release from FIU. 

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