- Author: Ben Faber
From The Packer:
South Florida university researchers are using dogs and drones to sniff out a disease that's killing the region's avocado trees.
The Florida International University researchers are sending dutch sheppards and belgian malinois into avocado groves to locate trees infected by the lethal laurel wilt disease, which is spread by the redbay ambrosia beetle.
Detection is a major problem and trees can start to wilt within two weeks.
By the time infected trees are detected, the fungus has likely spread to nearby trees via root grafting, said DeEtta Mills, a biological sciences professor.
She and Kenneth Furton, a university provost and forensic chemist, are leading research that trains and deploys five dogs into Miami-area groves.
Drones flying above the groves can detect symptomatic trees, which signal researchers to direct the dogs to infected areas.
The dogs run through the groves and with their powerful noses, have been 90% accurate in locating infected trees, Mills said.
Because of permitting paperwork delays by the Federal Aviation Administration, the researchers haven't been able to use the drones.
The researchers hope to receive approval for drones by August and are relying on growers to point them to infected trees.
The drones provide higher accuracy and can better cover larger areas because running the dogs too long can overheat them and wear them out, Mills said.
Their heavy panting can dull their sniffing senses so after about 20 minutes, the researchers return them to kennels in air conditioned vans, Mills said.
The dogs are trained with diseased wood and infected tree samples detected by the dogs are sent to researchers who examine DNA to verify contamination, she said.
“These dogs, they love to do this and it's amazing to watch them,” Mills said. “These ‘girls' come out of the kennels of the van and ask us where we would like to send them and what we would like them to do. They're extremely highly-driven dogs. If we can get permission to use the drones, it will help us identify areas we need to go in with the dogs and help us verify infection much faster so the dogs won't have to cover as much ground.”
Canine detection is another way of helping save the state's multi-million dollar avocado industry and ultimately, the North American industry.
Florida growers have lost about 4,000 of nearly 800,000 trees and the disease has spread throughout the Mid-Atlantic and into Mississippi.
If it travels farther west, the dogs and drones detection system could also help growers in California and Mexico protect their much larger production, she said.
The Miami university is also working with University of Florida researchers and growers.
N.B. These techniques could also be used to trace Polyphagous Shot Hole Borer infested trees, as well.