By Greg Rosenthal
Every day, USDA’s Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) program and its partners intercept beetles, flies, moths, snails, slugs, and other creatures at U.S. ports of entry. Most are harmless, but others could devastate our crops and ecosystems. PPQ must quickly and accurately figure out which is which to keep international cargo—and economic activity—moving as efficiently and safely as possible. PPQ’s Identification Technology Program (ITP) has developed an array of high-tech pest identification tools to do just that.
“Our digital identification tools are some of the go-to resources for PPQ pest identifiers at Plant Inspection Stations and for U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agriculture Specialists at our ports,” said Terrence Walters, ITP Biological Scientist. “With these tools, they can quickly identify certain types of pests and determine the appropriate safeguarding action to take.”
Over the last 10 years, Walters’ team of three, with the help of scores of experts, created three forms of digital pest identification products that are freely available to the public:
ID Tools includes more than 40 websites covering insects, mites, mollusks, plants, seeds, and dried botanicals (think potpourri, except it could contain imported destructive weed seeds). Nearly 18,000 users visit these websites each month. The sites use identification key software called “Lucid” that lets users select a specimen’s distinguishing characteristics—color, shape, size—with the aid of illustrations and photographs. Users don’t always need to know the scientific terms. Each characteristic they choose can eliminate up to hundreds of possibilities and lets users quickly narrow the search to the exact species. These websites also include identification fact sheets, glossaries, and image galleries.
Mobile Apps make the identification keys and fact sheets from 12 of the ID Tools available to you anywhere and anytime on your iOS or Android device. Once installed, they can be used offline. You can download them from iTunes for iPad or iPhone or Google Play for Android devices.
Screening Aids present valuable, visually rich identification information and directions in a PDF document. They are specifically designed for pest surveyors to use when they screen insect traps looking for pests targeted by PPQ’s Cooperative Agricultural Pest Survey program. ITP created 24 screening aids ready for downloading. In 2017, the program will release 12 more.
“A major reason we created these resources is that so many experienced researchers, Extension specialists, pest identifiers, and other professionals were retiring,” Walters said. “We saw a crucial need to capture their identification expertise in digital format and provide it to the next generation before it was too late. Our products also empower non-experts—including students, educators, and the general public—with access to expert information. Home gardeners have never had such powerful tools at their disposal.”
The international plant protection community has shown keen interest in this technology. Walters presented his team’s work to more than 120 country delegations at the 11th annual meeting of the International Plant Protection Convention’s (IPPC) Commission on Phytosanitary Measures in Rome, Italy. During a hands-on demonstration, participants downloaded the Grasshoppers of the Western U.S. mobile app and completed an identification challenge in real time. The IPPC Secretariat, impressed by the quality, quantity, and accessibility of PPQ’s digital screening tools, has asked ITP to help other countries develop similar tools.
Closer to home, PPQ grasshopper surveyors in Western States use the web-based version of the grasshopper app. They bring field specimens back to their offices in the spring and summer to identify the species and developmental stage. This information helps PPQ determine the right pesticides to use or recommend to protect rangeland forage from large, damaging grasshopper and Mormon cricket outbreaks. About 250 native species of these insects inhabit Western rangelands, but only around two dozen can cause significant damage.
Nationwide, ITP’s work taps the expertise and resources of the greater plant protection community. For example, in 2015 the program partnered with the University of Georgia’s Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health—also known as “Bugwood—to significantly update four of Bugwood’s image sites, making them more user-friendly. Over 30,000 ITP images are available to the public at Bugwood’s ITP Node. ITP and Bugwood share the goal of making invasive species information readily available to the public, allowing anyone to identify a serious threat before it spreads too far.
Even more recently, ITP has been collaborating with a number of university museums to solve one of its biggest challenges: obtaining images of pests not available in any existing image collection. The museums provide specimens that the team photographs in ITP’s high-tech Imaging Studio. These new images will supplement the images in Bugwood's ITP Node and the more than 100,000 images in imageID, ITP’s restricted-access online imageID database. Port identifiers use imageID's searchable photos of plant pests and commodities to identify intercepted pests. The team is currently expanding its beetle image collection (over 2,800 images and counting), using borrowed specimens from museums at Texas A&M University, Purdue University, Ohio State University, Cornell University, University of Nebraska, Colorado State University, and more.
This year, the ITP staff is developing two new screening tools focusing on invasive bees and metallic wood-boring beetles in the United States. “Each year we build new products, and we continually update and revise our tools,” said Walters. “Safeguarding work is non-stop and worldwide. ITP’s many tools make that work even more effective.”