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Wed, 23 May 2018
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Plagues

Bizarro Earth

US: Fungus Outbreak Hits Alabama Marshes; Could Oil Spill Sheens Be to Blame?

Alabama marsh grass
© Press-Register/Ben Raines
Seeds of one of Alabama's primary salt marsh grasses are suffering from a fungal infection that renders them sterile. The long, purplish black claws protruding from the spartina seeds are symptoms of infection by Calviceps purpurea. The fungus is common in marshes, but usually not widespread. Scientists speculate that exposure to oil sheens may have reduced the ability of the marsh grasses to resist infection.
A widespread fungal outbreak is affecting one of Alabama's key marsh grass species, potentially rendering much of this year's seed crop sterile, according to scientists.

While the fungus is always present in coastal marshes, scientists speculated that repeated exposure to oil sheens floating on Mississippi Sound and Mobile Bay this spring and summer might have played a role in the outbreak by reducing the natural resistance of the marsh plants to the disease. It is also possible that other factors, such as an ongoing drought, played a more important role than oil, they said.

There are records of the fungus in Alabama and Mississippi marshes dating to 1895, and the scientific literature describes some years where every seed was lost to the fungus, said Judy Stout, who has studied the Gulf's coastal marshes since 1972.

"The marshes and barrier islands were the areas that took the brunt of the oil and sheens," said Judy Haner, marine conservation director with the Alabama office of The Nature Conservancy. "This infection raises the possibility that our marsh system is more vulnerable because it has been stressed. This wasn't like a hurricane, over and done in a day. This area was subjected to months of repeated exposure."

A BP spokesman said that if federal damage assessments found problems in the marshes related to the spill, the company would act appropriately.

Affecting Spartina alterniflora, one of the two main grasses in Gulf Coast salt marshes, the fungus produces deep purple shafts that protrude from individual plant seeds like cat claws coming out of a paw. The fungus, Claviceps purpurea, does not kill the adult plants.

Bizarro Earth

New Zealand - Mystery Illness Hits Oyster Stocks

Sick Oysters
© ONE News
Juvenile oysters or 'spat'.
Scientists are trying to determine the cause of a mystery illness hitting oyster stocks on North Island farms.

The disease, which kills juvenile oysters, or spat, has been found on farms in Northland, Bay of Plenty and Waikato.

A 20-strong MAF team is working around the clock, testing the DNA of dead spat for traces of lethal pathogens.

Over 500 tissue samples have been taken and MAF hopes to have an answer next week.

New Zealand exports millions of Pacific oysters to Asia and Australia, bringing in around $30 million each year.

Info

Locust plague encroaches on Melbourne

Australia's worst locust plague in 70 years has marched into metropolitan Melbourne as federal and state authorities met to consider their plan of attack.

Federal Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig today met with ministers and officials from NSW, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland to discuss the response to the swarms.

Senator Ludwig said the response so far had been "extremely efficient", but with the pests taking to the wing the time had come to discuss realistic approaches to controlling the swarms.

There had been an increase in reports of fledgling or young adult locusts, with swarms even spotted in Melbourne, he said.

"There has been a sudden influx of locusts into parts of the Melbourne metropolitan area," Senator Ludwig said in a statement.

Bad Guys

Kiwifruit Virus Could Affect 18 New Zealand Orchards

Image
© unknown
A vine disease threatening New Zealand's NZ$1.4 billion ($1.1 billion) kiwifruit industry may have affected as many as 18 orchards, the government said, confirming that a second North Island orchard has the infection.

The government has placed entry restrictions on four orchards in the Bay of Plenty area, two of which have been infected with Pseudomonas syringae pv actinidiae, said Annie Wright, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, in an interview. The region produces 77 percent of New Zealand's kiwifruit crop, according to Zespri Group Ltd., the world's largest marketer of the fruit.

The ministry is studying images from 18 New Zealand kiwifruit orchards suspected to be showing symptoms, Wright said. The ministry put a "restricted place notice" on another orchard today, placing precautions on entering and leaving the property, she said.

"We have four restricted places notices and two confirmed as having PSA," said Wright.

Alarm Clock

Montana, US: Efforts Fail to Halt Pneumonia Outbreak in Bighorn Sheep

Image
© Frantisek Staud
Helena - Wildlife officials will let a pneumonia outbreak run its course through a herd of bighorn sheep west of Anaconda after killing dozens of sick animals failed to keep the disease in check.

There are no known vaccines to prevent pneumonia in bighorn sheep, which is usually fatal for the animals, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials said Tuesday. Instead, wildlife officials kill sick sheep to prevent other animals from being exposed.

The agency has killed 44 bighorn sheep in the herd of about 300 animals west of Anaconda since confirming the pneumonia outbreak in August. But FWP officials say the outbreak has now spread beyond management control.

The whole population appears to be exposed and there is nothing to gain by killing more sheep, FWP Regional Wildlife Manager Mike Thompson said in a statement. Instead, the focus is now on trying to keep alive every animal that has a chance of surviving the outbreak.

Cloud Lightning

Cholera-Hit Haiti Braces for Looming Storm

Haiti
© AFP
Haitian refugees await word of Caribbean storm Tomas at a tent city in Port-au-Prince
Haiti reeled from a spike in cholera deaths as authorities planned mass evacuations from squalid tent cities ahead of a major storm set to lash the Americas' poorest nation beginning Thursday.

Tropical Storm Tomas was barreling toward Haiti, threatening a direct hit early Friday as a hurricane bringing "life-threatening flash floods and mudslides over mountainous terrain," according to the US National Hurricane Center (NHC).

A hurricane warning was issued, which means hurricane conditions are expected in the affected area within 24 to 36 hours, while tropical storm-force winds and rain were expected to buffet the Caribbean nation from late Thursday.

"These conditions make outside preparations difficult or dangerous, and preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion," the Miami-based center warned.

Attention

US: Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep Ravaged by Disease

Image
© Ryan Hagerty/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Bighorn sheep are pictured in Montana in this photograph taken on February 27, 2006 and obtained on October 2, 2010.
Across the northern Rocky Mountains, bighorn sheep are dying by the hundreds from pneumonia and alarmed wildlife officials are hunting and killing the majestic animals to halt the spread of the disease.

Since winter, nine disease outbreaks across five states in the West have claimed nearly 1,000 bighorns, prized as a game animal for the prominent curled horns of the adult males, or rams.

Scientists recently confirmed what they long suspected -- the cause of the plague is contact between the wild bighorns and domestic sheep flocks.

Putting the blame on domestic sheep has heightened a furious debate between advocates of the wild bighorns and sheep ranchers -- one skirmish in a bigger war between proponents of economic interests and those seeking protection of remaining wild areas and species in America's West.

Binoculars

Australia Faces Worst Plague of Locusts in 75 Years

Image
© Alamy
It's a bug's life: an Australian plague locust
Ideal breeding conditions for grasshoppers are expected to cost farmers billions

Australia's Darling river is running with water again after a drought in the middle of the decade reduced it to a trickle. But the rains feeding the continent's fourth-longest river are not the undiluted good news you might expect. For the cloudbursts also create ideal conditions for an unwelcome pest - the Australian plague locust.

The warm, wet weather that prevailed last summer meant that three generations of locusts were born, each one up to 150 times larger than the previous generation. After over-wintering beneath the ground, the first generation of 2010 is already hatching. And following the wettest August in seven years, the climate is again perfect. The juveniles will spend 20 to 25 days eating and growing, shedding their exoskeletons five times before emerging as adults, when population pressure will force them to swarm.

It is impossible to say how many billions of bugs will take wing, but many experts fear this year's infestation could be the worst since records began - 75 years ago. All that one locust expert, Greg Sword, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, would say was: "South Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria are all going to get hammered."

Binoculars

Australia: Locust Bands Found in Northwest New South Wales

Image
© The Daily Telegraph
Surveillance aircraft have captured images of "supersized" bands of locusts in northwestern NSW that are more than three kilometres in length.

NSW Primary Industries Minister Steve Whan has released the footage of the locusts near Walgett, taken during the first aerial surveillance mission of the plague season.

Mr Whan said there were now 102 confirmed locust reports across NSW, with aircraft on Wednesday detecting the insects in 16 locations near Walgett.

"What we've seen from the footage is supersized bands of locusts, more than three kilometres long, eating fodder and crops in northern NSW," Mr Whan told reporters at NSW Parliament on Thursday.

"This has confirmed our prediction that the northwest will be the first front in the battle against the locust plague.

Attention

Canada: Blight wiping out Alberta's tomatoes

alberta tomatoes
© Edmonton Journal
A fast-spreading fungus that normally infects potatoes is wiping out tomato plants across Alberta this season, says a plant-disease expert
A fast-spreading fungus that normally infects potatoes is wiping out tomato plants across Alberta this season, says a plant-disease expert.

The airborne disease called late blight of potato -- the same organism that led to the Irish potato famine -- is rare in Alberta, said forensic plant pathologist Ieuan Evans. However, a "giant outbreak" of the potato disease is attacking tomato plants this season and causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, Evans said Sunday.

"We've never had this strain in Alberta before -- it's a tomato strain of late blight and it's extremely virulent in tomatoes," he said. "On the prairies, the last time we had an outbreak of late blight of any consequence was 1993, when it went right through Edmonton, but that was a potato strain."

Gardener Katherine Shute spent Sunday afternoon clearing out the withered remains of her diseased fruit. She spent the summer caring for 36 tomato plants in the large garden behind her Riverdale home and they have all rotted.

"It's so heartbreaking," she said. "I always grow a lot of tomatoes. I either make spaghetti sauce, salsa or tomato sauce and freeze them or can them so they last me well into spring, and it's just really discouraging."

Shute first spotted brown blotches on her tomatoes in July. She thought the spots were caused by hail until a friend warned her about late blight and neighbours told her the disease is attacking Edmonton gardens this year.