Dogs and Drones Take on Fungus

Canines team up with flying technology to save Florida's avocado crop.
By JoAnna Lou, April 2015

The availability of guacamole, popular party snack and essential burrito ingredient, is being threatened by a fungus spreading insect. The ambrosia beetle, an invasive species from Asia, is infecting avocado trees with laurel wilt. The deadly fungus first appeared in the U.S. in Georgia in 2002, and has since spread around the Southeast to the avocado plant. Once infected by the fungus, the tree can die within six weeks.

According to Jonathan H. Crane, a tropical fruit crop specialist at the University of Florida, this is the biggest threat to the Florida avocado that's ever been seen. Avocados are Florida's second biggest fruit crop, behind citrus. Researchers and farmers are racing to halt the fungus before it advances to California, which produces nearly 90 percent of the nation's avocado crop.

Part of the challenge of fighting laurel wilt is that by the time a farmer sees evidence of the disease—sawdust residue left behind by the burrowing beetle—it's too late to save the tree. If farmers could catch the disease before symptoms emerge, there's hope of saving the tree with fungicide. That's where a new strategy comes in.

Scientists from Florida International University and the University of Florida have teamed up with a drone company and a canine detection team to fight the fungus in a very non-conventional way.

Drones carrying a thermal digital imaging camera are being used to fly over avocado groves, allowing researchers to find the stressed trees. They then send in the trained canines to sniff out the infected trees. Once the dogs identify a diseased tree, the farmers can burn it and inject nearby trees with fungicide.

The canine team is made up of two Belgian Malinois and two shelter pups that can detect the fungus in trees showing no visible signs of infection.

Besides affecting crops, laurel wilt has had a widespread ecological impact. Since 2011, the fungus has killed swamp bay trees scattered across 330,000 acres of the Everglades. And hundreds of millions of redbay trees have succumbed across six Southeastern states since 2002.

The drone-canine collaboration is being funded by a $148,000 state grant. Ken Furton, an FIU provost and professor of chemistry, hopes that the novel detection system will not only stop the avocado epidemic, but also be adopted to stop other crop diseases, such as citrus greening.

Who knew dogs and drones would work together to save our guacamole!

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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