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How Dogs and Drones Will Save Our Guacamole

Mar 19, 2015 07:56 PM EDT
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Don't panic yet, but Florida's local guacamole looks to be in trouble. The state's multimillion dollar avocado industry is being threatened by invasive beetles and their deadly fungus, and researchers believe that only a perfect team-up between dogs and drones can stop it.

That's at least according to a team of researchers from Florida International University (FIU), who say local farmers have a reason to dread the approaching spring season, when hordes of redbay ambrosia beetles are expected to start their march to war on the state's avocado groves.

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 in some groves within six weeks of an infection.

One of the reasons why this could be is that it's pretty hard to detect laurel wilt until it already has a strong presence in a grove, making it much more difficult to contain the fungus.

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

But if you could stop an invading army from growing in size, wouldn't you want to? That's why experts are now proposing to quite literally unleash the hounds on the beetles and fungus causing avocado farmers such grief.

Furton and DeEtta Mills, an expert in biological sciences, have found that thermal digital imaging instruments on surveillance drones can help identify stressed trees in potentially infected groves long before symptoms are visible.

Of course, trees can be stressed by factors other than a debilitating fungal disease. That's where canines, with their immense number of olfactory (smelling) receptors, come in. After the drones identify the concerning parts of a grove, specially trained dogs are then called in to sniff out the fungus, marking beetle infested trees for quarantine long before their infection can spread to others through the insects or root grafting.

Initial tests of this approach have already shown that the dogs are fairly accurate, identifying the same three infected trees in several trials. Now, the FIU researchers hope to see this strategy get put to use in the expected invasion to come this spring, potentially saving thousands of avocado trees in the Florida area.

[ Credit: FIU ]

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