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 that could stretch across the Prairies and keep moving east towards 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. Jack pine is the dominant pine species in Canada's boreal forest, which stretches east from Alberta all the way to the Maritime provinces.
The beetle first crossed a wide swath of forest where lodgepole pine and jack pine interbreed to create hybrids trees. Telling pure jack pine trees apart from hybrid trees is tricky, but the U of A researchers used molecular markers to conclusively show that the attacked trees are indeed jack pine.
U of A researchers teamed up with Alberta Sustainable Resources Development 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.
The research will be published April 4 in the journal, Molecular Ecology. This research was conducted by the Tria project (www.thetriaproject.ca), and is funded by the Government of Alberta through Genome Alberta and through Genome British Columbia and Genome Canada.
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