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Scientists Can Now Predict Which Invasive Insects Will Wipe Out Forests

Inside Science

Surprisingly it's trees not bugs that matter.
Gabriel Popkin, Contributor
(Inside Science) -- Plagues of forest-destroying insects seem to arrive on our shores almost as regularly as ocean waves. Their names -- hemlock woolly adelgid, emerald ash borer, Asian longhorned beetle, spotted lanternfly -- only hint at the damage they trigger. The dead trees they leave behind cost billions to remove and add more than 5 million metric tons of carbon annually to the atmosphere, an amount roughly equal to the annual output of 4.4 million cars.

Yet for each major tree killer, around half a dozen foreign insects live quietly in our forests, causing few noticeable problems. A new study may help scientists pick out the future tree killers from the crowd, and it has a surprising conclusion: It’s the characteristics of the trees that insects feed on, not the insects themselves, that matter.

"It’s just the kind of research that we need," said Gary Lovett, an ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystems Studies in Millbrook, New York, who was not involved in the research.

Efforts to predict invasive tree killers go back decades. But many have simply tried to determine which insects could get established in a new environment, said Nathan Havill, an entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Hamden, Connecticut.

Predicting which invasions will have major impacts “has been referred to as the holy grail of invasion biology,” said Angela Mech, an entomologist at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina.

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