Biocontrol agents, such as insects, are often released outside of their native ranges to control invasive plants. But scientists in Montana have found that through complex community interactions among deer mice, native plants and seeds, the presence of an introduced fly may exacerbate the effects of the invasive plant it was meant to control. The authors report their results in the September issue of the journal Ecological Applications.
Spotted knapweed, a flowering plant native to Eurasia, was first discovered in the United States in the late 1800s. This broad-leaved plant has an advantage over native plants because its natural enemies, including insects such as European gallflies, do not naturally exist in North America. Thought to have hitched a ride with hauls of alfalfa, knapweed is now widespread in western North America and has become a serious problem in the U.S. across Washington, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana and in Canada across Alberta and British Columbia.
As early as 1971, U.S. scientists began releasing gallflies in an effort to reduce populations of the invasive weed. Like all biocontrol agents, the gallflies were selected because of their specificity to their host plant, leaving little risk of direct harm to other plants.
Adult flies lay their eggs in the weed's flowers, and after the larvae hatch they induce the plant to grow tissue around the insect, encasing it and isolating it from the rest of the plant.
"The woody galls wall off the fly larvae from within flower head," says Dean Pearson, lead author on the study and a research ecologist with the U.S.D.A. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research station. "The larvae then overwinter in the seed heads for about nine months. When the plant devotes all that extra energy to producing these galls, it has less energy to produce seeds."
Scientists and managers expected that this seed deficiency would lead to limited knapweed population growth.
|Contact: Christine Buckley|
Ecological Society of America