UAVs, Dogs Called In To Battle Deadly Avocado Fungus 

Florida International University (FIU) researchers believe a combination of UAVs and dogs could be part of a solution in the fight to stop a deadly fungus spread by redbay ambrosia beetles, which causes a vascular disease in trees called laurel wilt.

Redbay Ambrosia beetle

Redbay Ambrosia beetle
Photo by Lyle Buss

With devastating effects on avocado groves, more than 90% of trees die within six weeks of infection.

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Detection is a major challenge. So, as part of a research program, FIU researchers recently deployed three specially trained canines in a grove where the beetles were suspected. The dogs identified three infected trees, though the trees were not yet showing symptoms.

FIU provost and executive VP Kenneth G. Furton and biological sciences professor DeEtta Mills developed the detection program, which is backed by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The hunt begins with the UAVs carrying thermal digital imaging instruments that search for stressed trees before symptoms are visible. Then the dogs are dispersed. Canines have up to 50 times more olfactory receptors than humans and can be hundreds to thousands of times more sensitive to detecting odors. By using UAVs to isolate areas of concern, it provides manageable areas for a dog to search.

Of the recently deployed dogs, all alerted to the same three trees in the commercial grove during separate searches. Students from Mills’ lab conducted DNA tests on samples to look for the laurel wilt fungus. The DNA tests confirmed the trees were infected, meaning the dogs detected the pathogen much earlier than any other method available.

Currently, diseased trees must be removed along with surrounding trees. More than 6,000 of Miami’s 74,000 avocado trees have been destroyed due to laurel wilt.