Winged solution to biopollution?

A half-century ago, a new type of fern arrived in Florida—probably having started out as stowaway spores in shipments of nursery plants from Southeast Asia. Today, from suburban backyards to remote locations in the Everglades, the Old World climbing fern (Lygodium microphyllum) infests some 100,000 acres in south Florida. In an effort to control the explosively spreading weed, state and federal officials are betting on a moth indigenous to Australia.

VEILED THREAT. To limit the growth of an alien plant, here blanketing a south Florida cypress forest, government officials have released fern-eating moths (below). ARS/USDA

Female moth of the species Austromusotima camptonozale, previously known as Cataclysta camptozonale. ARS/USDA

Each frond of the kudzulike Lygodium can grow 100 feet long and smother wetlands plants in its way. Of all Florida’s weeds, “by far, this one’s the worst we’ve ever seen,” says Dan D. Thayer of the state’s South Coast Water Management District in West Palm Beach.

On Feb. 14, government entomologists released hundreds of three-quarter-inch-wide adult moths of the species Austromusotima camptonozale. In Australia, caterpillars of the moth eat enough Lygodium to keep it under control. Research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Invasive Plants Research Laboratory in Fort Lauderdale indicates that the moth doesn’t have a similar appetite for the native U.S. plants it might encounter in Florida and nearby states.

Over the coming year, the lab plans to release 20,000 moths, says USDA’s Robert W. Pemberton.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

More Stories from Science News on Earth