Resource managers at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve are constantly working to protect wildlife from unintended consequences of non-native, invasive plants and animals in the landscape. Melaleuca, Australian pine and Brazilian pepper are a few of the better-known invaders of state lands that must be managed to allow native species to survive.
A newer threat to Florida's lands from Asia, called air potato vine, has similarly been overtaking the natural environment here, but a better solution may be on the way from the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Ellen Lake and Melissa Smith, scientists with the Invasive Plant Research Laboratory, are working in cooperation with Rookery Bay Reserve and other state and municipal land managers to combat the spread of air potato vine with a beneficial insect called the air potato leaf beetle (Lilioceris cheni).
"Air potato vine grows so quickly that in a few months' time it can virtually blanket the entire native plant community in some locations," said Greg Curry, resource management specialist for Rookery Bay Reserve. Because his contractors and volunteers have an uphill battle managing the vines' growth, the decision was made to provide the USDA scientists access to infested lands in the reserve for their beetle study.
Invasive plants can result in a "monoculture," or contiguous habitat consisting almost exclusively of one plant that degrades the habitat by outcompeting native plants and reducing shelter and food resources for native wildlife. Invasive plants around the state annually cost government agencies millions of dollars for removal and maintenance by chemical or manual means, and require ongoing and costly maintenance of cleared lands to prevent re-growth.
The air potato leaf beetle, from the vine's native range in Asia, has been extensively tested in the laboratory and the field to ensure its diet only includes air potato leaves. Since being released in the reserve in July, 100 beetles have been munching away on the vines and have even laid eggs. "We are thrilled to see the beetles already reproducing on our study sites," said Dr. Melissa C. Smith, a research ecologist involved with the project. "Rookery Bay Reserve had a perfect location for this effort," she added. Results were quick to appear. Several patches of invasive vines are already showing serious decline, with beetle feeding damage and curling, wilting sprouts. The beetles are expected to survive during the winter plant dormancy, and should be ready to start eating again once spring rains bring new sprouts.
More information on the USDA's research project
More information on Rookery Bay Reserve's invasive species management efforts