Attack on Giant Salvinia
Giant salvinia is a
fast-growing fern that
can clog ponds and lakes.
Forming mats up to 2 feet
thick, the plant gobbles
up oxygen and blocks
sunlight needed by other
water dwellers. A tiny
salviniae, is under
study as a biocontrol for
this obnoxious invader.
|In ponds, lakes, and reservoirs from
North Carolina to Hawaii, a stealthy invader called giant salvinia is making an
unwanted appearance. This free-floating fern has earned a reputation as one of
the world's worst aquatic weedsand with good reason. When conditions are
right, salvinia's small, oval leaves form dense matsgreen, yellow-green,
or brownthat can easily double in size in just a few days.
Sometimes 2 feet thick or more, the mats can cover the surface of an entire
pond or small lake, blocking out sunlight that other plants need. And the mats
use up oxygen that fish, insects, and other aquatic dwellers require.
Giant salvinia, or Salvinia molesta, is a bother to humans as well. It
ruins conditions for fishing, boating, and waterskiing. The weed also clogs
irrigation and electrical generating systems.
ARS scientists in the United States and
Australia are working to stop this pest before it wreaks further havoc.
Researchers based at ARS labs in Fort Lauderdale and Gainesville, Florida, and
in the Brisbane suburb of Indooroopilly, Australia, are leading new studies of
the genetic makeup and plant-eating prowess of tiny, salvinia-hungry weevils.
To perform tests of
water quality, entomologist
Philip Tipping collects
water samples from a
tank infested with giant
and common salvinia.
|Finding an Agent To Eat It Up
Biological controlthe use of natural enemies to undermine nonnative
organisms such as invasive weedsis today regarded as the most affordable
and practical option for slowing salvinia. ARS researchers were the first in
the United States to use a beneficial insect to attack salvinia.
They collected the dark-colored, one-tenth-inch-long weevil known as
Cyrtobagous salviniae from another salvinia species, Salvinia
minima, or common salvinia, growing in Florida. Common salvinia is an
earlier invader that is now part of the landscape, according to Ted D. Center.
He is director of the ARS Invasive Plant Research Laboratory at Fort Lauderdale
The C. salviniae weevil has won kudos internationally for holding
salvinia in check. The helpful insect has already been usedwith great
successin more than 13 countries over 3 continents.
This one-tenth-inch-long South
American weevil, Cyrtobagous
salviniae, is highly effective
in reducing giant salvinia
infestations to acceptable levels.
| The weevil lives in or on the weed's
leaves and submerged stolon- or runner-like structures called rhizomes, says
research entomologist Philip W. Tipping of the ARS Invasive Plant Research
Laboratory in Fort Lauderdale.
"The adult female," Tipping says, "lays her eggs in a cavity
that she creates by chewing into the leaf bud. The larvae that hatch feed on
the base of the leaf bud. They eventually tunnel into the rhizomes or sometimes
the petiolesthe structures that attach the leaves to the stems."
The weevil larvae become adults in 17 to 28 days, depending on the weather.
Says Tipping, "That means this species is capable of producing a new
generation of hungry young in about a month during the warmer parts of the
summer. The adults stop laying eggs in the cooler temperaturesthe low
70sin the spring and fall."
Technician Eileen Porkorny (left)
and Student Conservation Association
member Laurie Bauer collect giant
salvinia used for rearing the
weevil Cyrtobagous Salviniae.
| Tipping and colleagues at the Fort
Lauderdale laboratory have collected more than 800 salvinia weevils from S.
minima plants and have turned the insects loose in a salvinia-infested east
Texas pond and lake and in a reservoir on the Texas-Louisiana border.
But those releases "were plagued with environmental and human
problems," Tipping recounts. "Among other things, we had floods,
droughts, and accidental destruction of the salvinia at some experimental sites
before the weevils could get their work done."
They Look the Same, But They're Not
Research on the genetic makeup of the weevils suggests that those collected in
Florida might be different from those used in Australia and other parts of the
world. "We anticipated that if weevils from overseas and weevils from
Florida eventually ended up being used in the United States," says
Tipping, "then we would need a reliable way to tell them apart so that we
could compare their effectiveness. Under a microscope, they look exactly the
same. So we turned to analyses of the weevil's genetic material, or DNA."
Aerial color-infrared positive
photo of giant salvinia in a
wetland area near Liberty,
Texas. Areas with healthy
green salvinia foliage (arrow 1)
are easily distinguished from
those with dying foliage
| ARS contracted with the molecular
diagnostics laboratory of CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial
Research Organization) in Canberra, Australia, to conduct gene sequencing on
weevils collected from Florida, Australia, and South Africa. John A. Goolsby,
who directs the ARS Australian Biological Control Laboratory in Indooroopilly,
was the liaison for this work, conducted by Felice Driver and colleagues at
"Some genetic differences between the Florida weevils and those collected
in Australia or South Africa were found," says Tipping, "but we don't
yet know how those differences affect the ability of the weevils to thrive on
salvinia species. Given the unanswered questions, we decided to release the
Australian weevil next. It has a proven track record."
Notes Goolsby, "When C. salviniae weevils were used in Lake
Moondarra here in Australia, they destroyed more than 8,000 tons of giant
salvinia in less than a year. Those are the sort of dramatic and rapid results
that we're used to seeing from this biological control agent."
The Florida scientists also teamed up with colleagues at South Africa's Plant
Protection Research Institute in Pretoria to conduct several more tests. Those
experiments determined that the Australian weevil, already successfully
established in South Africa, won't eat benign North American plants like
mosquito fern, Azolla caroliniana, or water clover, Marsilea
"The tests provided additional evidence that the weevils attack only
salvinia and won't pester other plants," says Tipping. "We've used
these findings, along with other data, in applying for federal and state
permission to release the Aussie weevil in Texas and Louisiana. We hope to
receive the permit this year."
The weevils that the researchers will set free at salvinia-infested sites are
descendants of weevils that Goolsby's team in Indooroopilly collected and
shipped from Australia. ARS entomologist Gary R. Buckingham, with the Invasive
Plant Research Laboratory, has built up a thriving colony of about 7,000
In addition to needing a powerful biocontrol agent to knock out giant salvinia,
waterway managers also need a fast, affordable way to monitor the weed and
detect new infestations before they have a chance to build up.
Remote sensing may be the answer. Rangeland scientist James H. Everitt of the
ARS Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center in Weslaco,
Texas, teamed up with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department specialists in 1999
to develop remote sensing technology for detecting and monitoring salvinia
infestations in the state.
Before beginning the salvinia project, Everitt had already started research on
remote sensing of two other exotic aquatic weeds in south
Texaswater-hyacinth, native to South America, and hydrilla, native to
Everitt began his salvinia research by measuring light reflectance of giant
salvinia and other nearby aquatic plants. In some places, giant salvinia was a
healthy green. At other sites, growth was so dense that some of the
salviniastarved of nitrogen and other nutrientsturned brown.
Everitt found that if the salvinia plants were healthy, their green
light-reflectance could be easily distinguished from that of other plants.
Densely populated stands with mixtures of various shades of green and brown,
however, had similar reflectance to that of alligator-weed, arrowhead, and
To distinguish dense salvinia from these other plant species, Everitt used
near-infrared reflectance. By using color infrared film in the process, he
found that both the healthy and the dense giant salvinia infestations could be
distinguished from the other species.
Now the scientists are researching the potential of combining the aerial color
infrared videography with global positioning and geographic information system
technologies. The combination would allow the researchers to pinpoint giant
salvinia infestations faster and more easily than ground crews could if working
on shore or in boats.
"That's especially true for infestations in remote, inaccessible
locations," says Everitt. "Quick detection of outbreaks before they
have a chance to build up is key to stopping the spread of salvinia."
Giant salvinia is among the invasive species profiled in a comprehensive
database maintained by the ARS National Agricultural Library. Visit it on the
World Wide Web at http://www.invasivespecies.gov.By
Wood, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff, and Ben
Hardin and Jesús García, formerly with ARS.
This research is part of Crop Protection and Quarantine (#304),
and Water Quality and Management (#201), two ARS National Programs described
on the World Wide Web at http://www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
Ted D. Center and
Philip W. Tipping are
with the USDA-ARS Invasive
Plant Research Laboratory, 3205 College Ave., Fort Lauderdale, FL
33314; phone (954) 475-0541, fax (954) 476-9169.
John A. Goolsby
is with the USDA-ARS Australian
Biological Control Research Laboratory, 120 Meiers Rd., Indooroopilly,
Queensland, Australia 4068; phone 61-7-3214-2821, fax 61-7-3214-2815.
James H. Everitt is with
the USDA-ARS Kika de la Garza
Subtropical Agricultural Research Center, 2413 E. Highway 83, Weslaco,
TX 78596; phone (956) 969-4812, fax (956) 969-4893.
"Attack on Giant Salvinia" was published
in the November
2001 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.