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Plant Protection Today - USDA Lab Develops and Shares Powerful Pest ID Tools

USDA Lab Develops and Shares Powerful Pest ID Tools
December 15, 2021

(Cover Photo: The Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle (Oryctes rhinoceros) was first detected in Hawaii in December 2013. This invasive pest is native to Southeast Asia. It attacks coconut palms by boring into the crowns or tops of the tree where it damages growing tissue and feeds on tree sap. The damage can significantly reduce coconut production and kill the tree.)

Identifying Harmful Pests Helps Protect U.S. Agriculture and Natural Resources

By Sharon Lucik

USDA’s Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) program continues its Science and Technology (S&T) laboratory article series by highlighting the Pest Identification Technology Laboratory (PITL), formerly known as the Ft. Collins Lab. The PITL develops digital and molecular technologies to make pest identification easier and more efficient. 

“PPQ’s mission to safeguard agriculture and facilitate safe trade drives what we do here,” said PITL Acting Director Alison Neeley. “Our staff and cooperators have developed an incredible inventory of easy-to-use online products and resources to identify pests of concern. We also explore how other technologies—such as geometric morphometrics, which uses differences in shape and size to distinguish between organisms—might be used to accurately identify pests from images.”

Anyone can visit the website and find a wide variety of insect images. These include the Asian giant hornet (left), which was first detected in Washington State in 2019, and the cornsilk fly (right), a pest of corn that is native to Florida.

The PITL staff cooperates with taxonomic experts from around the country and the world to populate their digital toolchest. In addition to fact sheets, identification keys, screening aids, and mobile apps, the toolchest also includes a platform that enables both professionals and amateurs to search, share, and develop identification resources and tools. Anyone can access the program’s website at, which presents a wealth of pest ID resources.

PPQ’s National Identification Services (NIS) staff and area identifiers are core users of PITL’s tools and resources, especially imageID—a searchable image database and essential tool for remote identification.

“The success of imageID and a request from NIS sparked us to develop another new product, called PPQ IDaids,” said PITL Biological Scientist Amanda Redford. “PPQ IDaids is a secure and searchable interface for pest identification resources that will complement imageID. IDaids will also provide PPQ with a simple and user-friendly way to share and distribute identification resources, as well as a method to bundle resources into training modules for new identifiers.”

PPQ’s Pest Identification Technology Laboratory (PITL) and National Identification Services (NIS) staff supports and delivers precise pest identification.

On the molecular side, PITL scientists are developing taxon-specific tests to rapidly detect and identify important insect plant pests, such as Old World bollworm. “We have developed technology that allows us to screen an entire trap sample of 1,000 moths in a single reaction,” said PITL Biological Scientist Todd Gilligan. “PITL also developed the methods that are being used to implement molecular identification at USDA plant inspection stations, and PITL is coordinating the molecular research across several agencies and cooperators to support the Asian giant hornet eradication program in Washington State.”

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