A plant disease blazing through South Florida is killing off swamp bay trees, an important part of the architecture of the Everglades that provides food for a vast range of wildlife and traditional medicine for the Seminole Tribe.
Laurel wilt disease, a fungus carried by a beetle the size of a grain of rice, has been detected across more than 500 square miles of the Everglades, according to a forthcoming paper by state and federal scientists. The beetle, thought to have arrived from Asia in the Port of Savannah in packing crates, has hopscotched down the southeast coast, infecting avocado trees in the commercial groves of southern Miami-Dade County, reaching the wilderness of western Palm Beach County in 2012 and western Broward County in 2013.
"This is a huge, huge threat to the Everglades," said Jason Smith, associate professor of forest pathology at the University of Florida. "The loss of that tree canopy is going to totally change the ecosystem. It's arguably far more damaging to the Everglades than the pythons. These trees are dying rapidly in very, very large numbers."
Since first being detected east of Everglades National Park in 2011, the disease has spread across about one-sixth of the Everglades. Many canals through the southern Everglades are lined with dead swamp bay trees, said Tony Pernas, exotic plant management specialist with the National Park Service.
In Broward County, the disease has killed trees in the flat expanse of sawgrass and trees islands through which drivers pass on Alligator Alley. The amount of damage varies, with some tree islands showing a 10 percent loss of canopy and others, particularly in the southern Everglades, showing a 50 percent loss, said LeRoy Rodgers, lead scientist for the Land Management Bureau of the South Florida Water Management District.