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Deadly Fungus Killing Thousands of Trees in Everglades

Jul 25, 2014 03:00 PM EDT

A deadly fungus carried by an invasive beetle from southeast Asia is killing thousands of trees across the Everglades, and experts don't know how to stop it.

Not only that, the beetle-borne fungus has made Florida's fragile wetlands vulnerable to an invasion by exotic plants, The Associated Press (AP) reported.

The laurel wilt fungus, spread by the tiny redbay ambrosia beetle, has killed swamp bay trees scattered across 330,000 acres of the Everglades since it was first discovered in the area in 2011.

Swamp bay trees in the Everglades aren't its only victims - the fungus also plagues commercial avocado trees and redbay trees elsewhere in Florida and the Southeast. Measures have been taken to preserve the avocado trees, but experts are still at a loss of how to contain the damage in swamp bay or redbay trees.

Officials believe their best bet to beating laurel wilt is to stop the invasive beetle that carries it from crossing US borders.

"It's amazing how much of an impact this one little tiny beetle that's no bigger than Lincoln's nose on a penny has done," Jason Smith, an expert in forest pathology at the University of Florida, told the AP. "And it continues to spread."

Since 2002, hundreds of millions of redbay trees across six states have succumbed to the fungus' destructive powers.

This summer, Smith plans to survey and collect samples of living swamp bay trees in the national park in hopes of using their cuttings or seeds to create new trees that are resistant to the pathogen.

In addition, the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency that oversees Everglades restoration, will improve its monitoring and maintenance of the affected area.

Laurel wilt dries and browns these once lush forests, causing each tree to lose up to half of its canopy. These open spaces, experts say, make way for invasive plants to come in. Invasive plant species like the melaleuca fern or Australian pine and Brazilian pepper are blamed for dramatic drops in the populations of native mammals in the wetlands.

"We already have these problems with invasives that are almost too daunting. When you add laurel wilt to the mix, it's only going to get worse," Tylan Dean, chief of biology at Everglades National Park, told the AP.

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