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Deadly Avocado Disease Attacks Historic Trees, Dogs Warn

Oct 10, 2015 02:14 PM EDT

It turns out that alerting us when little Timmy take a dip in the well isn't all that Lassie is good for. Dogs in Florida recently revealed to experts that some 20 ancient and historic avocado trees have contracted a deadly disease.

"These [avocado trees] are part of the history of American agriculture and in particular the history of fruit growing in South Florida," Mike Maunder, the Interim Director of the historic estate of Fairchild's Kampong garden in Coconut Grove, Florida, explained in a statement.

The Kampong, which is the sole garden managed by the National Tropical Botanical Garden outside of Hawaii, also happens to be home of the International Center for Tropical Botany (ICTB). That's why when staff began to notice that their historic avocado trees -- old behmeoths brought to Florida in the 1920s -- were in poor health, they didn't need to look far for help.

Researchers with Florida International University (FIU), which runs the ICTB, have been putting specially trained dogs to work, sniffing out a disease that has already wiped out a stunning 10 percent of Florida's avocado crop.

Normally working in tandem with drone-guided surveys, the dogs are used to determine if -- among stressed trees in a field -- any are infested with redbay ambrosia beetles. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : FIU / The Kampong)

The beetles, which first appeared in the United States in the early 2000s, are partners-in-crime with the fungus Raffaelea lauricola, which causes a vascular disease in trees called laurel wilt. This disease seems to have a particularly devastating impact on avocado trees, with most commercial subspecies seeing more than 90 percent mortality within six weeks of infection.

"This isn't just a Florida problem," forensic chemist Kenneth Furton said in a statement. "From California to Latin America, there are growing concerns about how to respond to this aggressive disease."

Maunder was worried that the wilt had finally made its way into The Kampong, and with the help of the FIU dogs, those concerns were confirmed.

By identifying the cause of distress early, the staff was able to act quickly and begin treatment. While not all of The Kampong's 20 trees were infected, the decision was made to treat all of them in hopes of preventing a further outbreak.

Thanks to the dogs, Maunder added, "we now hope to keep [the trees] that otherwise we might have lost."

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