The huge appetite and catholic tastes of a tiny foreign insect have the potential to devastate Australia's forest industries and native forests, says Australia's public research organisation, CSIRO.
"The Asian gypsy moth is not in Australia - yet - but it has the potential to cause enormous damage if it penetrates our quarantine defences," says CSIRO's Dr Rob Floyd, author of a new report on the moth.
The moth is attracted to light, and quarantine authorities have already found viable egg masses on container vessels in Australian and New Zealand ports.
The vessels were loaded under lights in Asia, where the moth is widespread.
"Most insects feed on only one, or perhaps a few, species of plant," says Dr Floyd. "But the Asian gypsy moth enjoys an alarming diversity of food sources."
The new research shows that the Asian gypsy moth feeds just as successfully on Australian native trees and commercially important species such as Pinus radiata as it does on its natural host trees (oaks) in Europe and Asia.
In severe cases, substantial defoliation takes place and trees die.
"Asian gypsy moth is one of two strains of gypsy moth found across the world. The European strain is flightless and much easier to control, but the Asian strain can fly up to 30 kms which is why it is a serious incursion risk in Australia," he says.
Dr Floyd says that in northern America, the forestry industry is attempting to contain the spread of the less damaging European strain. However an incursion of the Asian strain in 1995 from ships loaded under lights at Vladivostok almost destroyed whole industries around Vancouver and cost millions of dollars to eradicate.
Only night spraying across huge areas, including urban areas, controlled the incursion.
Dr Floyd says that an agreement had to be reached with the shipping companies to cease loading under lights in areas where Asian gypsy moth was known to live.
"It is absolutely critical that Australia and New Zealand maintain quarantine vigilance against this pest," says Dr Floyd. "Our climate distribution studies show that this moth will easily find a suitable geographic range to breed and survive across a wide area of Australia."
Dr Floyd believes that, based on the Canadian experience, our forest industries cannot afford the cost of control should this pest establish itself in Australia. Similarly the cost of control in our native forests would be prohibitive, because of the huge areas involved.
"This new study by CSIRO Entomology clearly demonstrates two things," says head of CSIRO Entomology Dr Jim Cullen, who is also a member of the Government's Quarantine and Exports Advisory Council. "The importance of good quarantine and of basing quarantine vigilance on sound scientific research."
The report which assesses the threat from the Asian gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar L.) was prepared by CSIRO Entomology for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Australia, and the NZ Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.
Materials provided by CSIRO Australia. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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