Mountain pine beetles, traditionally confined to the lodgepole pine, have made the jump to the jack pine, potentially endangering forests from British Columbia to the east coast, including Canada’s climate-regulating boreal forest.
Environmental officials in British Columbia and Alberta have been waging war against the insect, whose larvae feeds on and kills mature trees, for years in the lodgepole pine. But their jump to the other pine species opens up a vast new territory, said researchers at the University of Alberta, which documented the change.
British Columbia has given $9 million to three groups that are on the frontlines of this battle to enhance eradication efforts.
The jump was discovered by a University of Alberta team lead by molecular ecologist Catherine Cullingham, who said in a statement that the beetle had first adapted to a hybrid species of the two trees, so it was not immediately clear whether the beetle had made it to the jack pine.
“Tracking the pine beetles progression and telling jack pine from the hybrid species took a lot of work,” said Cullingham in the university’s statement. “It was tricky, but our research team used molecular markers to conclusively show that the latest pine species to be attacked is indeed jack pine.”
Research team member Janice Cooke called the confirmation a real concern.
“Jack pine is the dominant pine species in Canada’s boreal forest,” said Cooke. “Its range extends east from Alberta all the way to the Maritime provinces.”
The hard-shelled mountain pine beetle is about the size of a grain of rice, the University of Alberta said in a release. It spreads by flying and being borne on wind currents, though it’s not clear how long it might take them to infest the other forests.