Dogs: Doing their part to help stop the spotted lanternfly spread

October 12, 2020
dvm360 Staff
dvm360, dvm360 October 2020, Volume 51, Issue 10

The scent-detection dogs at the University of Pennsylvania are at it again, this time helping to eradicate an invasive insect species.

The invasion of spotted lanternflies into the United States began in 2014. The distinctive insect, which has spotted brown and red wings, is native to China, India, and Vietnam, and was likely brought to the US on a cargo ship from China. Six years later, spotted lanternflies have put 26 of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania under quarantine parameters in hopes of stopping the spread of this invasive species. By the end of August, nearly 63,000 public reports of spotted lanternflies had been made in the state—a 72% increase from the same period in 2019.

Enter the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet), where a new program is training scent-detection dogs to identify the insect’s egg masses. During fall, adult spotted lanternflies lay egg masses that can contain up to 50 eggs each. Because the egg masses can attach to—and blend in with—almost any surface, they are often difficult to spot.

Led by Cynthia Otto, DVM, PhD, DACVECC, director of Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center, and backed by funding made available through the US Department of Agriculture, the aim of the program is to use dogs’ powerful scent-detection capabilities to seek out the egg masses so they can be destroyed.

“With up to 300 million smell receptors in their noses, properly trained dogs are uniquely positioned to provide an effective surveillance and management strategy in identifying and removing these egg masses that may otherwise go undetected,” Otto says in this press release.

This program is crucial to Pennsylvania because spotted lanternflies can wreak havoc on the state’s natural resources. These insects not only cause severe damage to trees and are a nuisance to Pennsylvanians, but they are also a significant threat to the state’s agriculture industry.

The program began in December 2019, when eggs were introduced to the dogs in a laboratory setting. Researchers gathered samples by either scraping them off tree bark or removing a piece of bark from a tree with the specimen on them. The eggs were then killed by freezing. The intent of this phase was to make sure the dogs could identify the odor of the egg mass while ignoring the odor of tree bark.

Next, the dogs were tested to see whether they could identify live eggs in real-world settings, such as on or under cars, pallets, and other objects. “We found that after training on the dead eggs, the dogs transferred easily to the live eggs in just a couple of sessions,” says Jennifer Essler, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher working on the program. Results were excellent, with the dogs correctly identifying egg masses with up to 95% accuracy while also correctly ignoring nontarget scents up to 93% of the time. “And, the proof-of-concept confirming the dog’s ability to transfer easily from dead to live eggs paves the way for producing reliable training results unhindered by location or season—even during times when live targets aren’t accessible,” Essler says.

Due to program’s success, Penn Vet will soon be training a new set of dogs, including 18-month-old Lucky, a German shepherd slated to become the first spotted lanternfly scent-detection dog at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

“Penn Vet is an invaluable partner, researching innovative solutions to the most complex and challenging threats to Pennsylvania agriculture and our state’s economy,” Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding says in the release. “We are thrilled to see the work of Dr. Otto’s team come to fruition and excited to have Lucky join the skilled team of inspectors working to keep spotted lanternfly from spreading.”

For more information about the spotted lanternfly in Pennsylvania, visit the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s website.

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