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Destructive pest beetle wreaking havoc in Pacific islands edges closer to invading Australia

A 'palm-loving' beetle is threatening Australia's agricultural industries after biological controls failed to stop the spread of the harmful insect on our nation's doorstep.

The coconut rhinoceros beetle has become a problem in the nearby Pacific Islands, severely damaging the farmland in Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands and causing a major upset to the economy.

For the past 50 years a specific 'beetle virus' has kept the pest from mutating uncontrollably, but the latest species have grown resistant and researchers say it's only a matter of time before they spread to Australia.

The coconut rhinoceros beetle (pictured) has become a problem in the nearby Pacific Islands and severely damaged its farmland, causing a major upset to the economy

University of Queensland researcher Dr Kayvan Etebari has been studying the sudden acceleration of the beetle's invasion. 

'In the 1970s, scientists from Australia and elsewhere found that coconut rhinoceros beetles could be controlled with a beetle virus from Malaysia,' said Dr Etebari.

'This virus stopped the beetle in its tracks and, for the last 50 years or so, it more-or-less stayed put - that is, until now.

'It seems that they are now unshackled from the virus in some places and could be in Australia before we know it.'

It is evident from damage caused to the Pacific Islands of Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands that the extent of their damage to palm crops would be unprecedented in Australia.

'If they spread to Australia, garden palms would be at risk, along with the country's emerging date industry, coconuts, oil palms, and many other palms, both wild in the forests and ornamental,' Dr Etebari said.

University of Queensland's Professor Micheal Furlong said the research team investigated the beetle's population genetics and the incidence of the virus in specimens collected from the Pacific islands and Asia.

'We found that there have been several new waves of beetle invasions, not only one as we first expected,' Professor Furlong said.

'And there are different populations of the beetle that we didn't recognise previously - in the Solomon Islands for example, there are three populations of the beetle, and they are interbreeding.'

Professor Furlong likened the way they were able to identify different strains of the beetle virus to scientists spotting different strains of Covid-19.

Professor Furlong likened the way they were able to identify different strains of the beetle virus to scientists spotting different strains of Covid-19

'This presents us with a complex problem: multiple types of beetles and beetle-controlling virus,' said Professor Furlong.

'The next step will be finding out how these virus variations behave in these different beetles, and how this can be used to control them.

'We know the virus doesn't kill the beetles outright, but probably affects the number of eggs a female lays and changes beetle behaviour, for example how far infected beetles can fly, so we need to explore these important aspects of the interaction too.'

Dr Etebari said investing in research and new control methods was vital for Australia and can hopefully provide a humanitarian solution for our Pacific Island neighbours being ravaged by the insect.

'The coconut rhinoceros beetle remains a serious threat to livelihoods across the Pacific Islands, where the coconut tree remains their "tree of life", providing essential resources like food, copra, building materials and coastal protection for five million vulnerable people,' he said.

'It's imperative that Australian scientists help our neighbouring countries in the Pacific to tackle their emerging pests and diseases.

'And everything we're finding in the Pacific Islands may later be critical to managing the beetle here in Australia.'

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