By Carrie Bengston
Want to go for a walk in a rainforest? Join us!
We push our way past vines tangled around tree limbs in the dark, multilayered forest. As we walk, we’re aware that we’re the only people in this tranquil environment. But it’s a place that’s home to rare and unique birds like the cassowary, a fantastic collection of fungi, and unusual mammals like the tree kangaroo. We step across clear, freshwater creeks (plus or minus leeches) and we listen to leaves rustle in the canopy as a thunderstorm approaches, rumbling in the distance.
Our rainforests are precious and incredibly biodiverse. For example, the rainforests of Far North Queensland, which include the iconic Daintree, occupy less than 0.2 per cent of Australia’s land mass. Yet they support more than ten percent of its flora, 36 per cent of its mammals and 48 per cent of its birds. Rainforests are confined to small patches clustered mostly in inaccessible, mountainous regions along the tropical coast. It’s important we look after these amazing habitats. Unfortunately, a purple-leafed weed, Miconia calvescens, has escaped from its natural habitat overseas via introduction into Aussie gardens and nurseries (which has since been banned) and has made its way into our World Heritage rainforests.
Purple is a great colour. Don’t get us wrong. But these purple weeds have no place in our rainforests as they compete viciously for space, and squeeze out our native plants. The Miconia menace is taking over the rainforests of Tahiti and other countries. We don’t want that happening here. So we’ve called on an unlikely ally to stop Miconia getting a roothold – robotic technology.
We’ve been participating in a research project, Project ResQu, to trial robot helicopters that could do some of the weed spotting people currently do. Weed spotters work on the ground pushing through dense forest or flying above in manned helicopters, but robots can do the job better and safer. We recently put that to the test.
The robots did well. The robot helicopters, fitted with radar and special cameras and given quirky names like ‘Hotel Golf’, found several Miconia infestations missed by other methods of surveillance. Here’s how we did it.
Will robots save the rainforest? They just might.
About Project ResQu:
Project ResQu is a two-year, $7M project led by the Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation (ARCAA) in a collaborative project between the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), CSIRO, Boeing and Insitu Pacific with the support of the Queensland State Government Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts.
Media contact: Emma Pyers, 03 5227 5123, 0409 031 658, firstname.lastname@example.org
How much are bees worth to you?
Well, did you know they earn an estimated $4-$6B for Australia every year? Another way to look at it is – what price would you place on cashews, almonds, macadamias, strawberries and avocadoes? Among many others, these crops rely on bees for pollination. In fact, around one in three bites of the food we eat owe its existence to bees, which is why it is a concern to learn that bee populations around the world are in trouble.
Enter Destructive Varroa
Varroa mite (Varroa destructor) is in all beekeeping countries except ours. These sesame-seed-sized mites attach themselves to bees and suck their haemolymph (insects’ version of blood), making the bee more vulnerable to disease. No country has been able to eradicate Varroa once it’s established.
Varroa has been implicated in collapse of bee colonies. Adult worker bees suddenly leave the hive, dying somewhere else. The colony then falls apart. The underlying cause is often unclear, but devastated hives often contain Varroa mite. This may only be a coincidence, but it’s another reason to keep Australia Varroa mite-free as long as possible. Colony collapse has become a major problem – particularly in the US.
The good news is we’re unaffected – so far. The bad news is that when (and it is when, not if) Varroa mite arrives in Australia, local bees haven’t been exposed to it, so they’re extremely susceptible. There have already been a couple of scares in 2012. Varroa-carrying bees were found living in the loading cranes of a ship berthed off Sydney.
Australia is currently free of Varroa mite but not of Asian honey bees which is their natural host. We’re already on alert, which is why horticultural industries, the honeybee industry and the Australian Government created a National Bee Pest Surveillance Program, managed nationally by Plant Health Australia.
Unfortunately no amount of surveillance can guarantee pests are kept out, so an early warning system is necessary.
The most likely entry point for Varroa mite is through Australia’s east coast ports, especially from vessels from New Zealand and South-East Asia.
The National Bee Pest Surveillance Program now has 126 sentinel hives. These are hives of healthy European honey bees that are placed at high-risk locations, an average of six per location. These hives are tested every two months using mite-killing chemicals, to provide early detection for Varroa mites and another major honey bee pest, Tropilaelaps mites that could be carried by exotic bees on a ship or in the cargo. Samples of bees are taken from sentinel hives every two months.
But how do they know which ports to put the hives at? Enter data analytics.
The shipping news
Working out the best sites for the hives involved taking multiple data sets containing details on exotic bee interceptions, ships involved, ports of origin, destinations and types of cargo carried.
We used a technique called random effects modelling, a way of drawing out the relevant information when the precise characteristics of the members of the dataset– in this case the cargo, the last country of call and arrival port– are not all the same and difficult to quantify.
We started with shipping data. There is comprehensive information on those vessels that have arrived in Australia, when and from where. We matched this with records of exotic bee interceptions – sometimes on vessels, in machinery, or nesting on the outside of containers at ports. We then collected maps and aerial pictures of all Australian ports, to produce models of potential bee habitats. To know what to put into the models, we had to find out how far bees can swarm (5km maximum for Asian honey bees and 2km for European honey bees). We also had to learn how long a vessel would need to be in port for bees to find a place to swarm to. If there isn’t enough time for scout bees to find a suitable site or a second set of bees to visit and ‘approve’ it, the colony will not swarm. That’s also assuming it has a queen and is a genuine swarm. This was not always possible to establish with confidence from the interception data.
Some ports with desert or industrial areas nearby ports were ruled out because they have no habitat suitable for honey bees that are within swarming range. This also ruled out ports where the berthing location is relatively distant from the coast.
Data were then assessed to establish what cargo came to the more ‘bee-hospitable’ ports, where the vessels arrived from and how long the voyage had been. Voyages of 300 days or longer were excluded on the basis that the bees wouldn’t survive a trip of that length.
The country of origin and type of cargo are also important considerations. Asian honey bees in particular like to nest in nooks in machinery which is subsequently shipped as cargo. These bees are less keen on – perhaps unsurprisingly – the barren hulls of empty vessels.
All this information and consideration have combined to produce a surveillance system that is likely to use resources effectively as possible and head off exotic and infected bees before they do any damage.
So, next time you’re enjoying a handful of almonds, spare a thought for the bees that pollinated it and for the data analysis that goes into keeping those bees healthy.
By Adam Harper
Whenever communities emigrate from far away, they do their best to adapt and succeed in their new environment. Some groups succeed better than others. One population of Australian immigrants has been particularly good at adapting – the rather aptly named Halotydeus destructor, more commonly known as the redlegged earth mite (RLEM for short).
These pinhead-sized pests emigrated from South Africa in the early part of last century. They’ve settled into their new home so well that they are now the most expensive pest for Australian grain growers, at least in southern Australia, causing losses of about $45 million a year. An infestation is a triple threat – it can kill seedlings, reduce productivity and quality of older plants and lower the seed yield in spring. Pesticide treatment for RLEM costs about $20.5 million a year.
Not only are they the most expensive pest, they are also showing resistance to some insecticides. What’s more, they’re expanding their range into climatic regions in Australia different from the ones they occupied in their native South Africa. We don’t yet know how far they are capable of extending their range. All these factors mean RLEM could spell disaster for grain growers. Fortunately University of Melbourne PhD student Matthew Hill recently completed his research on this problem.
In collaboration with his supervisors at The University of Melbourne and CSIRO, Matt found how the distribution of RLEM had changed in Australia and what this may mean for grain growers. He used historical data collected on RLEM to show how it is expanding its distribution. His research will help growers not affected by RLEM understand the risks RLEM could pose.
RLEM was first found in WA in 1917. By the 1920s it had spread to Victoria. Its ability to use a wide range of host plants (grain crops, pasture species, clover, and many broad-leaved weeds) meant that it spread easily and quickly. Matthew compiled three data sets, showing the recorded distribution of RLEM in its native South Africa, its invasive range in Australia in the 1960s, and its present-day range in Australia. He used these to develop models describing the environmental conditions this mite experienced in each case. His models show that RLEM has expanded beyond the range predicted by its distribution in South Africa. Today, RLEM can be found in hotter and drier inland regions of Australia.
Several factors may have helped RLEM expand into inland Australia. First, changing farming practices have meant a greater uptake of minimum or no tillage systems, as well as an increase in area under irrigation in the eastern states. Second, climate changes such as a small increase in winter rainfall may have also helped. Third, and perhaps most worryingly, RLEM may have undergone an adaptive genetic shift.
That means Australian RLEM populations may have different physiological traits that make them more tolerant to these new dry and hot environments. When Matthew compared mites from Australia and South Africa, the Australian mites were able to move around at higher temperatures than those from South Africa. Australian mites also recover more quickly from damaging cold temperatures. This shows that RLEM has adapted well to its new Australian home. However, the question still remains; how far is it capable of expanding its distribution?
Dr Garry McDonald at the University of Melbourne has been developing models that predict the risk of a RLEM outbreak each season, based on the weather patterns in a region. RLEMs are generally active in the cool, wet part of the year. Eggs laid in spring go into a suspended growth state over summer to protect them from drying out. Identifying the weather conditions that trigger egg hatching as the autumn weather cools is a crucial part of Garry’s models. Discovering these triggers will help growers more accurately predict when to watch out for RLEM. To discover exactly what the triggers are, Garry compiled data from various research trials conducted by state departments, CSIRO and universities over the past 50 years. He is now using this data to tease out the climate triggers for egg hatching. So far he has found that rainfall, then temperature, act in concert to regulate egg development and hatching.
Interestingly, the triggers in the western region appear to be different from those in the southern-eastern region. This supports some of Matthew’s findings that suggest there may be un-documented differences between populations in the western and southern-eastern regions. Once these triggers are validated across a range of sites, Garry can determine if they will be useful for growers currently managing RLEM, and whether different management strategies should be developed for the two regions.
Current research is aimed at giving growers advance notice of the risk or severity of an RLEM outbreak. However, to confidently predict outbreak risk, the factors that influence RLEM at both the regional and field levels need to be combined.
The work was funded by The University of Melbourne, CSIRO and the Grains Research and Development Corporation, and conducted as part of the National Invertebrate Pest Initiative.
For further information please contact Dr Nancy Schellhorn NIPI Leader email@example.com
By Emily Lehmann
One of the world’s most invasive pests – the yellow crazy ant – is anything but a small problem in Australia’s top end.
Called ‘crazy’ for their erratic and frantic movements, these unwelcome critters were accidentally introduced into Australia and are a threat to native wildlife including other ant species.
Their capacity for destruction has been most devastatingly felt on Christmas Island where crazy ant supercolonies have formed and killed more than 20 million red crabs.
That’s why we have been leading efforts to control and eradicate the pest ant species across northern Australia.
As part of this mission, we’ve helped local company Yolngu Business Enterprises (YBE2) join the effort by developing a new service in crazy ant control.
Operating in north-east Arnhem Land, YBE2 is contracted to undertake rehabilitation work at Rio Tinto Alcan’s Gove Bauxite mine. The Gove area is ridden with yellow crazy ants.
Crazy ant infestations pose a significant challenge to mining and effective rehabilitation, as digging up the earth risks spreading them. The site needs to be continually monitored and treated to clear it of any colonies.
Through the Researchers in Business program, our ant ecologist Dr Ben Hoffmann worked with the YBE2 team on the ground to develop protocols to monitor the land, and identify and collect data to accurately map ant infestations using a GPS system.
About 200 hectares of infested area was mapped by YBE2 staff and underwent treatment. Since the project ended, a further 200 hectares has been mapped for treatment later this year.
The team gained valuable data on the impact the ants and treatments have on the local environment, which could be used to improve YBE2’s rehabilitation processes.
This research and development has given YBE2 the capacity to monitor and capture data from the land, secured them a contract to control crazy ants on the mine site and will potentially open up new business opportunities.
It’s also putting a halt to the spread of yellow crazy ants, helping to protect the Australian environment.
While Hong Kong has just reported its first case of the deadly H7N9 bird flu indicating that the virus may be spreading across China, Australia is reporting an egg shortage over Christmas as a result of the recent H7N2 cases in NSW. So how does the virus keep reinventing itself to cause issues across the world?
As over 70 per cent of emerging infectious diseases in people originate in animals, whenever we hear of a new virus outbreak we jump to find the source.
That’s not to vilify the animal species responsible, but to enable scientists to characterise the virus, track its path, assess its level of virulence and its potential impact on animal and human populations. While some recent viruses such as SARS and MERS have been tracked to bats, in the case of avian influenza in people, the source is birds.
Finding the source of influenza
As well as “bird flu” in the past there have also been reports of “swine flu”. In fact both these flu viruses belong to a group known as influenza A, and all influenza A viruses originally come from wild water fowl.
These complex viruses have evolved over time to become infectious to domestic birds such as farmed and back-yard poultry, pigs, horses, other domestic and wild animals and of course people. Cross-species transmissions can occur from time to time.
Viruses that infect more than one species frequently have natural hosts in which they replicate but do not cause obvious disease. The pathogen and host exist in harmony with each other and examples include Hendra, Nipah and SARS viruses in bats, Hanta viruses in rodents and influenza viruses in wild water birds.
On the whole, naturally occurring avian influenza (AI) viruses do not cause disease in wild bird populations. However, if wild water fowl are shedding virus and come in contact with domestic poultry, their food or water, either directly or via their excretions, AI can enter a poultry farm.
Once on a farm, the virus can be transmitted and maintained in the poultry in low pathogenic form, or certain strains can mutate to become highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in the new host with a high fatality rate.
In the case of farmed chickens, the close contact between these birds can lead to rapid transmission and in some countries infection has jumped from the poultry to other species such as pigs and humans.
Influenza virus evolution
There are a range of different influenza virus subtypes differentiated by the external proteins of the virus: haemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). It is generally recognised there are 16 different H types and 9 different N types.
Only some viruses of the H7 and H5 subtypes progress to be highly pathogenic in poultry through the process of mutation. Other H types may cause low-level disease but do not show the highly pathogenic mutations that can occur with H7 and H5 strains.
Avian influenza is an RNA virus with eight segments to its genome which makes it prone to re-assortment. When two or more influenza strains infect a host the genetic material can mix thereby producing a new strain or genotype. These genotypes can be tracked over time and the lineage identified for each of the genomic segments.
The major H7 virus lineages can be traced to either one of Europe and Asia (Eurasia), Australia, or Nth American origins. On this basis, gene sequencing of virus from an influenza outbreak can be used to determine whether it is likely to be an exotic strain newly introduced from another region, or derived from viruses already circulating in the local environment.
The Avian Influenza situation in Australia
While Australian water fowl remain predominantly local to our continent, there are many wild migratory birds such as shore birds and waders that travel across the world to share Australia’s waterways. A few of these migratory birds could potentially infect local wild water fowl.
The devastating H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza strain has not ever been detected in either Australian wild or domesticated birds. All previous highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks in Australian poultry have been caused by H7 viruses.
Low pathogenic viruses with an H7 haemagglutinin similar to that found in the current H7N2 outbreak and the earlier H7N7 outbreak in NSW have been detected in past unrelated samples from Australian wild water fowl.
Genetic tracking gives support to the belief that outbreaks such as the October 2013 H7N2 are the result of transmission of a low pathogenic virus from a wild bird reservoir to the poultry farm, where it then turned highly pathogenic as it spread among the farmed chickens.
Both the 2012 H7N7 and 2013 H7N2 are of Australian H7 lineage which has been circulating naturally here for many years.
Predictive genetic analysis
Genetic markers have been identified on H5 and H7 viruses that are associated with their potential to cause disease in people. The H7N9 virus in China in February 2013, though a low pathogenic avian virus, has certain genetic markers that are believed to be associated with its being more transmissible to and pathogenic in mammalian hosts.
Unlike the Chinese H7N9, the Australian H7N2 and H7N7 strains are more typical avian influenza A viruses that do not contain the same genetic markers that are a concern for disease in people.
The importance of biosecurity
Avian influenza will remain prevalent around the world so long as there are migratory birds. Biosecurity measures can mitigate the risk but whilst poultry, their food or water remain in potential contact with wild birds there remains a low possibility of the poultry becoming infected.
Biosecurity at the farm level is therefore vitally important to mitigate the risk of AI infection and biosecurity precautions to prevent disease outbreaks should be an everyday practice for all bird owners, whether large scale or back-yard poultry farmers.
By Wee Tek Tay, Research Scientist, CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship
We often speak of the risks of new invasions in our increasingly interconnected world, and stress the need for a strong and reliable biosecurity system to safeguard our borders.
As global trading and markets increase, it’s essential to develop our ability to detect incursions using new and innovative surveillance techniques combined with rapid identification capabilities. This is important because Incursions by exotic pests and diseases have the potential to seriously impact Australia’s people, agricultural industries and unique environment.
And right now, a team of Australian and international scientists are working closely with colleagues in Brazil as one of the most destructive pests known to agriculture – the cotton bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) – worms its way into Brazilian agricultural fields.
Helicoverpa armigera has long been recognised as a serious biosecurity threat to the Americas, where it has the potential to establish across the South and North American continent with far greater anticipated potential economic loss to corn and cotton than the closely related Helicoverpa zea which is endemic to the Americas.
Incredibly, despite being intercepted at US Ports of Entry a staggering 4431 times since 1985, this mega-pest had not been previously reported to take hold on the American continents.
In Australia, Asia, Africa and Europe, where cotton bollworm is considered native, the damage it causes is estimated to cost $US 2 billion each year. In the last two growing seasons, high infestations of Helicoverpa species larvae were found in different regions of Brazil, resulting in substantial economic losses of up to 10 billion Brazilian Reals ($US 4.4 billion).
At first it was assumed that the damage was being caused by Helicoverpa zea, because the cotton bollworm had never previously been detected within the country. However, as the scale of spread and destruction was monitored, the Brazilian scientists knew that something was different and suspected that maybe the dreaded incursion of Helicoverpa armigera had indeed begun. At this point, Brazilian scientists from the Mato Grosso Cotton Institute approached CSIRO researchers to assist in the careful identification of the species attacking their crops.
Our scientists, together with French and Indian colleagues from CIRAD and IRD in France and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research used evolutionary and population genetics to confirm that the cotton bollworm has now successfully invaded Brazil.
Along with the confirmation that the Brazilians are indeed dealing with a new incursion of a serious exotic pest, the international team led by scientists from the CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship and Matto Grosso Cotton Institute is providing further vital data that will assist Brazil to manage this new menace.
The next steps for the research team are to investigate where the moth originated, where they are currently distributed, its spread across the South American continent, and the incidence of resistance to key pesticides. This information, coupled with CSIRO’s extensive expertise in insecticide resistance management will assist Brazil to develop effective strategies to manage this mega-pest.
You can read the full research paper at PLOS ONE.
For media enquiries contact Emma Pyers: +61 3 5227 5123, firstname.lastname@example.org
By Gary Fitt, Director, Biosecurity Flagship
When the Department of Agriculture called a halt to imports of pop star Katy Perry’s latest album this month, they weren’t making a musical judgement. They were protecting Australia’s biosecurity.
Biosecurity is also a process – a set of linked science based protocols and procedures aimed at stopping unwanted pests and diseases from arriving in Australia, detecting and rapidly eradicating them if they do arrive, or (if they become established) trying to minimise their impact by using long-term management strategies.
Perry’s album included a paper impregnated with seeds so listeners could grow their own plants; while well-meaning, those seeds could pose a biosecurity risk. That’s exactly the kind of risk that gets investigated in efforts to keep pests out of our country.
“Biosecurity” was first used to describe preventive and quarantine measures to reduce the risk of invasive pests or diseases arriving at a specific location that could damage crops and livestock as well as the wider environment.
Today, biosecurity can encompass much more. It includes managing biological threats to our people, industries or environment. These may be from exotic (foreign) or endemic organisms but they can also extend to pandemic diseases and the threat of bioterrorism.
A challenging environment
Australia’s island status protects us from exotic pests and diseases to a certain extent, but we also have an enormous border to protect. International trade is increasing, and ships, planes and people are moving in increasing volumes across international and state borders. This means there is more pressure than ever on our biosecurity surveillance and response systems.
Australia has an enviable biosecurity and quarantine system. But there is no such thing as zero risk.
Invasive alien species remain one of the greatest threats to our biodiversity, and our agricultural productivity. The reality is that exotic organisms arrive in Australia regularly and sometimes become established. A critical element of biosecurity response is to prioritise which ones are of most concern and need rapid response.
Protecting our livestock industries, native wildlife, human health and the environment from exotic or emerging pests and diseases of animals is the realm of animal biosecurity.
Australia is fortunate to be free of many highly infectious animal diseases, such as foot and mouth disease, highly pathogenic forms of avian influenza, African swine fever and many others that have serious consequences in other countries. An outbreak of any of these diseases could significantly impact the productivity of our livestock industries, and make it very difficult to trade our agricultural products overseas, as well as result in significant social and economic costs.
The 2007 equine influenza (horse flu) outbreak in Australia was a “wake up call” of how disruptive exotic disease outbreaks can be and why vigilant biosecurity is so necessary.
Avian influenza has recently been detected on poultry farms in NSW (fortunately not the strains that can affect humans). The widespread culling that followed shows how much social and economic impact individual farmers might suffer if there are future disease outbreaks. Strict farm level biosecurity is becoming increasingly the norm across many industries.
Plant pests and diseases can significantly damage Australia’s productive plant industries. They reduce yields, lower the quality of food, increase production costs and make it difficult to sell our produce in international markets.
This is true across the massive expanses of our wheat production, and in the more intensive high-value production of horticulture, wine, cotton and sugar industries.
Plant pests and diseases may also be a huge threat to our natural environment: native forests, grasslands, and shrub lands.
Again, Australia is lucky to be free of many damaging pests prevalent elsewhere in the world. Citrus greening is a disease of citrus we definitely don’t want, whilst the varroa mite, for example, has devastated honeybee productivity and pollination success in every continent except Australia.
Fewer pest and disease problems mean lower production costs. Areas where rigorous biosecurity can deliver “pest freedom” gives Australian producers an enormous advantage in international markets and allows us to have safer and cheaper locally produced food.
Australia has an enormous shoreline and amazing biodiversity in our marine ecosystems. Marine biosecurity is dedicated to keeping these systems intact. It focuses on protecting aquaculture, ports and the environment from problems caused by invasive marine organisms. These can threaten marine infrastructure and ecosystems.
Australia is in the midst of major port expansion; new ports are being developed and international shipping is increasing dramatically. As a result the risks from marine invasive species are growing and our biosecurity response needs to grow as well.
Many emerging infectious diseases in livestock that also affect human health emerge from wild, native species. These so-called zoonotic diseases make up 70% of all the emerging diseases affecting human populations and include the likes of avian influenza, SARS and Hendra virus. The impacts of these diseases can be extremely severe and the need to manage livestock and human health risks in a unified way is also becoming much clearer.
“One Health” is a new way of looking at the connections between the environment, production animals and emerging threats to people. As with animal, plant and marine biosecurity, human biosecurity is about effective surveillance and response, being aware of the risks that are circulating the globe, having the tools to rapidly detect and diagnose them and the tools and systems to respond quickly.
Biosecurity is both a process and an outcome. A successful biosecurity system requires scientists, government, industry, and the community to cooperate. In the end it is a system of shared responsibility.
Australia is achieving this by working together across the continuum. We investigate risks offshore, focus on surveillance and detection at the border, and research effective response and management systems within our borders.
Robust emergency response arrangements are in place to manage outbreaks. But preventing pest, disease and weed incursions in the first place, through effective and smart surveillance, remains a national priority.