BLACKSBURG, Va. – From New York to North Carolina, the invasive Spotted Lanternfly is destroying agriculture and forestry industries, costing about $40 billion a year in production loss.
Now, researchers from Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are working to combat Spotted Lanternflies with the help of canines and their citizen scientists.
Meet Flint! He is an 8-year-old Border Collie who is using his nose to help detect Spotted Lanternflies. Flint’s handler and trainer is Sally Dickinson, a Doctoral Candidate in the School of Animal Science at Virginia Tech. She is working with him to be able to detect Spotted Lanternfly Eggs.
Dickinson says, “We have been watching the Spotted Lantern Fly come down and just decimate vineyards north of us. So really just trying to get ahead of that and then pairing that with the environmental aspect with something we can do with dogs.” She continues by saying, “We begin with figuring out what it is that the dog likes. Are they going to work for food? Are they going to work for a ball, a tug toy? That kind of thing. Once we get that done, we pair this novel odor, which means nothing to the dog with that thing that they really want.”
For Flint, that is his rubber ball. Through training, he has learned that correctly sniffing out the Lanternfly eggs means he gets his reward.
“Once we have established that and the dog starts to look for that and says ‘Where is that odor because I know that makes my ball come out.’ Then we built in a kind of search in there. We start making the problem harder and harder,” says Dickinson.
Researchers at Virginia Tech, like Dr. Eric Feuerbacher, have been collecting Spotted Lanternfly egg masses. They then send the masses to dog and handler teams to start their training.
Feuerbacher says, “Currently, we are mostly recruiting dogs that have done some scent work in the past. Although, in the future, we might be opening that up to dogs that have never done scent work and want to get started.”
This project began two years ago in partnership with Texas Tech. The goal is for these dogs to provide early detection, which Feuerbacher says is critical.
“So these dogs figuring out and identifying egg masses in places that have not been kind of infested yet. So, that we can go in and find that single egg mass and irradicate it and kill the eggs so it doesn’t keep spreading,” says Feuerbacher.
She says early detection is key and hopes this project can help effectively manage the invasive species in all parts of the country.
Feuerbacher says, “We are hoping that this can be generalized to other places in the United States and they can solve their own environmental and agricultural issues with dogs.”
Right now, researchers are hoping that more handlers and dog teams will join Sally and Flint in this mission. They want to have as many teams across the country using their pet’s scent work skills to sniff out Spotted Lanternfly eggs.