Mountain pine beetle set for march east to Maritimes

(Edmonton) A University of Alberta-led research team has determined that the mountain pine beetle has invaded jack pine forests in Alberta, opening up the possibility for an infestation stretching east across the Prairies all the way to the Atlantic.

A group of U of A tree biologists and geneticists discovered that as the mountain pine beetle spread eastward from central British Columbia it successfully jumped species from its main host, the lodgepole pine, to the jack pine.

U of A molecular ecologist Catherine Cullingham says that before the beetle adapted to the jack pine its first move was to a hybrid species, a cross between lodgepole and jack pine.

“Tracking the pine beetles progression and telling jack pine from the hybrid species took a lot of work, “said Cullingham. “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 says confirmation of the pine beetles’ jump to another species is 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.“

U of A researchers teamed up with Alberta Sustainable Resources Development and the Canadian Forest Service to track the progress of the mountain pine beetle infestation across the province. The insects have been found in jack pines as far east in Alberta as Slave Lake, which is 200 kilometres north of Edmonton.

Mountain pine beetles are about the size of a grain of rice. The hard-shelled insects spread by flying and with the aid of wind currents. Researchers currently have no estimate for the speed at which the insect might continue to spread eastward.

“Discovering that mountain pine beetle has spread into jack pine is an important finding,” said Cooke. “Being able to provide forest managers and decision makers with this information in real time has been vital in the ongoing battle against this devastating forest pest.”

The research was published today in the journal Molecular Ecology.