Old World climbing fern
growing on a cypress tree
in southern Florida.
Though you might not expect so, some tiny mites that feed on plants
are, apparently, exceedingly particular about exactly which ones they
choose to eat. That seems to be the case with the eight-legged, leaf-curling
Floracarus perrepae mites that ARS
scientists in Florida and Australia would like to recruit. These small,
tan-colored mites are, the scientists' studies have shown, top candidates
for the big job of fighting Old World climbing fern.
This fast-growing, dark-green weed, Lygodium microphyllum, is
on the march in Florida's unique and fragile Everglades ecosystem and
other wetlands. In fact, climbing fern is spreading so rapidly that
it's now the state's worst invasive weed.
First detected growing outdoors as an "escaped ornamental"
in 1965, the fern now infests more than 100,000 acres in the Sunshine
Entomologist John Goolsby
inspects Old World climbing
fern in its native habitat
in Queensland, Australia.
Old World climbing fern smothers native plants by forming dense mats
along the ground and by extendingvine-likeup shrub stems
and tree trunks, forming massive green walls of vegetation. These curtains
greatly increase fire danger by providing a flammable ladder stretching
from ground to canopy. Making matters worse, fern leaves, called fronds,
that catch fire often break off and sail away on the fire's updrafts,
serving like torches to spread the blaze even further.
A Mite-y Adversary?
The F. perrepae mite acts as a natural enemy of the fern. That's
why ARS entomologists John A. Goolsby at the agency's Australian Biological
Control Laboratory at Indooroopilly, near Brisbane, and Robert W. Pemberton
of the ARS Invasive Plant Research Laboratory, Fort Lauderdale, Florida,
want to put the mite to work in Florida's fern-ridden wetlands.
The chances for their strategy to succeed have been greatly improved
by the recent discovery of mite populations that may be a perfect match
for the particular kind of climbing fern that is choking vegetation
in Florida. Not all F. perrepae mites will feed on and make a
home in the Florida fern, the scientists have learned.
"But we think we've found what, so far, is the right mite for
the right fern," Goolsby points out.
Larvae of the Austromusotima
camptozonale moth, formerly
known as Cataclysta camptozonale,
feed on leaves of climbing fern,
weakening the plant.
| Matchmaking Makes a Difference
The quest for the perfect pairing of mite and fern was spurred by Goolsby
and cohorts' finding that F. perrepae mites collected in some
regions of Australia wouldn't feed and reproduce on climbing fern collected
from other locales, such as Florida.
The scientists combed climbing fern's native range, hunting for the
plant and the critters that keep it in check in rainforests, dry seeps,
coastal marshes, bay swamps, and tree islands. These treks took them
to more than a dozen nations and territories, including Benin, China,
Ghana, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea,
Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam, scouting
more than 100 different sites. These exotic venues not only presented
a significantly good chance of harboring important natural enemies of
climbing fern, but were also home to adversaries of the scientistsincluding
disgruntled elephants, fierce tigers, hungry crocodiles, and an array
of poisonous snakes.
Among cypress trees in
southern Florida, entomologist
Robert Pemberton examines
invasive Old World climbing
fern engulfing trees and
Goolsby and teammates from Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and
Industrial Research Organization made it home unscathedwith a
key discovery, too: They are the first to separate climbing fern into
genetically distinct local races, or genotypes. "By comparing fern
genetic material, we learned that the fern occurs in different genetic
forms," says Goolsby. "We looked at the same stretch of DNAa
region known as trnF through trnLin climbing ferns, and found
an exact genetic match to the Florida genotype. It was growing alongside
a stream in the Cape York area, a rugged, remote part of northern Australia
where the fern wasn't previously known to exist.
"And a fern we collected in a rainforest in Thailand is nearly
an exact match."
Miniature Fern Grotto Hastens Search
To speed the search for mites that were in sync with the Florida genotype,
Goolsby developed the tactic of taking small plantlets, or sporelings,
of the Florida variant along on expeditions so that local mites could
be immediately exposed to this target plant within the confines of a
mobile laboratory. (Of course, taking the miniature fern forest into
foreign countries was done only with approval from the host nations.)
This cafeteria-on-wheels approach to screening mites saved weeks of
time that might otherwise have been spent on mites that don't favor
the Florida fern.
Not surprisingly, the F. perrepae mites that Goolsby and colleagues
plucked from the Cape York and Thailand ferns are today the best prospects
for clobbering climbing fern in Florida.
In tests with climbing ferns grown in garden plots at the Indooroopilly
laboratory for 24 months, F. perrepae mites were able to blunt
growth of fern fronds, stems, roots, and other plant parts by half,
in contrast to ferns kept mite-free with a miticide.
Goolsby and colleagues are the first to discover the potential of F.
perrepae as a natural foe of climbing fern. The Indooroopilly team
is now rearing millions of mites indoors, awaiting approvals necessary
before the mites can be exported to the United States and released outdoors.
To make sure the mite will attack just climbing fern but not fern relatives,
crop plants, or trees and flowers in someone's backyard, the Indooroopilly
researchers tested it with more than a dozen plants, including fern
relatives from Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean and South America.
Florida's proximity to those parts of the world makes this aspect of
the mite's background check especially important.
Mites' Meals Balance Ecosystem
Mites damage ferns by puncturing the edges of fern fronds with their
tube-like stylets and other mouthparts, sucking up the nutritious contents
of frond cells. If the mite attack is successful, in about 3 days the
fern leaf will curl downward and inward, rolling over itself two or
three times. This reduces the amount of leaf space available to capture
light, which the plant needs to make its food. Eventually, the afflicted
frond tissue dries up and falls off. Until that happens, however, the
swollen, curled edge makes a cozy shelter for the mites. There, they
can feed, lay their eggs, and hide from their enemies. As many as 20
adults can crowd into a curl. And there's enough room for female mites
to fit hundreds of their little eggs into this refuge.
When the injured leaf edge falls off, the adults merely migrate to
another frond, beginning the cycle again. Notes Goolsby, "In the
fern's native range, this damage is both subtle and significant. It
causes the plant to grow slowly and to stay in balance with other plants."
As much as the researchers have learned, there's still a piece missing
in the puzzle. "We had tools of modern biotechnology to help us
differentiate the look-alike fern genotypes," Goolsby says, "but
we still don't know how mites tell the difference." (See box, page
Coming to America?
In Florida, the mite may eventually be joined by two other natural
enemies of climbing fern. They are small moths, each no more than a
half-inch from wingtip to wingtip. In their caterpillar stage, they
feed on fern fronds.
Austromusotima camptozonale, collected from climbing fern in
Australia, is bright white with a few black and brown spots and stripes
on its wings. Neomusotima conspurcatalis, from Australia, India,
Malaysia, and Thailand, has dark-brown wings, edged in white and dotted
with white, boomerang-shaped flecks.
Perhaps this trio of Old World climbing fern's natural enemies can
turn the tide against this pernicious Everglades invader.By Marcia
Wood, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Crop Protection and Quarantine, an ARS
National Program (#304) described on the World Wide Web at www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
John A. Goolsby is with
the USDA-ARS Australian
Biological Control Laboratory, 120 Meiers Rd., Indooroopilly, Queensland,
Australia 4068, phone 617-3214-2821, fax 617-3214-2815.
Floracarus perrepae mite,
a top candidate for fighting
Old World climbing fern.
Microscopic Look at
It's already known that when mites successfully attack fern plants,
fronds form tight curls that provide perfect food and housing for the
But the mystery of why mites of certain genotypes attack certain Old
World climbing fern genotypesbut not othersremains unsolved.
Scientists have recently ruled out the possibility that the stylets
of certain mites are too short to puncture cells on the front surfaces
of some ferns.
Thomas Freeman of North Dakota State University, Fargo, used scanning
electron microscopy to determine that mite stylets are 10 micrometers
long, certainly long enough to penetrate frond surface cells, which
he showed are only 1 or 2 micrometers thick.
"Now that we know some mechanical problem isn't the barrier faced
by certain mites," says ARS entomologist John A. Goolsby, "we
think an unknown interaction between chemicals in the mite and in ferns
is an underlying factor in some mites' success."By
Marcia Wood, ARS.
"Hungry Mite May Quell Old World Climbing Fern" was
published in the July
2004 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.