Scion researchers have received funding to fix the “aerial invader hole in our biosecurity net”.
New Zealand’s trade and tourism border security is among the strictest in the world, but aerial invaders – insects and pathogen pests arriving by wind – are harder to control.
Recent examples of such pests include myrtle rust and fall armyworm.
The research programme Protecting Aotearoa from aerial invaders in a changing climate will use investment funding of $10.85 million over five years through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Endeavour Fund – NZ’s largest contestable research fund.
It will aim to develop a novel, integrated aerobiological surveillance and prediction system to manage aerial pest movement.
Scientists will look at trajectory modelling, how airbridges connecting NZ to other landmasses are changing due to climate change, and fill knowledge gaps on aerial invader/pest survival in extreme atmospheric conditions.
The team estimates preventing establishment of just one serious pest would recover programme costs 10 to 100 times through avoided losses in the forestry and/or horticultural sectors, maintenance of carbon sequestration, and biodiversity conservation.
The programme will also establish a baseline of aerial invader arrivals with help from the Taranaki Mounga Project, a partnership with iwi, agencies and community working on restoring Taranaki Maunga.
It will be led by atmospheric dispersion modeller Dr Ilze Pretorius, who is based in Scion’s Christchurch office.
Pretorius said the project has been in formation for about five years and some preliminary research has been done. She said reaching this point has been a huge team effort.
“No one in the world is really doing research on this, there’s this assumption you can’t do much about aerial pest pathways, but New Zealand is in a unique position with water borders. If anyone can do something, it’s probably us,” she said.
“It’s a very difficult problem but we are of the opinion that you can’t do anything if you don’t at least research it and get to an answer. Either way, even if you can’t eradicate, this research will still lead to a lot of benefit.”
While the goal is detecting aerial invaders early enough for eradication, the tool could also help optimise surveillance networks.
She said she is looking forward to partnering with the Taranaki Mounga Project to establish a baseline of the pests that are coming in, as well as the research about how atmospheric conditions influence the ability of pests to survive in the atmosphere – work that hasn’t been done before.
The team is planning to build a custom wind tunnel to test how rainfall influences the ability of migrating moths to fly, to then incorporate findings in the prediction model.
“That’s easier said than done. Enticing moths to fly in that experiment will be an interesting challenge because it’s up to the organism and not us.”
The funding bid was submitted in partnership with representatives from University of Canterbury, NIWA, Ag Research, Plant & Food, Virginia Tech in the United States, and universities in Europe and Seoul.
While Pretorius is on maternity leave, the project will be handled by colleagues Jess Kerr, Toni Withers and Brian Richardson.
Scion chief executive Dr Julian Elder said the funding illustrates the value of the work Scion is doing in the research and innovation space.
He said NZ’s 2050 greenhouse gas emissions targets could be severely compromised by new pest introductions, so Pretorius’s research is critical.
“We’re delighted with the funding win and are proud to lead research that will tackle climate change and support industry transformation to shape a sustainable renewable future driven by forestry and wood products.”