Biologists turning to Asian moth to fight invasive plant in the Everglades

MIAMI — Compared to kudzu, the infamous vine that ate The South, Old World climbing fern may be an obscure pest plant. But they're a lot alike.

The fern just has a slightly smaller appetite. It's only eating South Florida.

It's been doing it at an alarming pace, smothering more than 130,000 acres from cypress forests to Everglades tree islands to coastal mangroves in dense cloaks of death -- despite millions spent trying to halt it with sprays, spades and machetes.

But a new weapon -- in development for a dozen years by federal researchers in Fort Lauderdale -- shows significant promise to beat back an invader so aggressive it would cover a third of the wetlands between Orlando and Naples if left unchecked.

It's a nondescript moth, a ''bio-control'' dubbed ''Neo,'' a nickname considerably catchier than Neomusotima conspurcatalis.

Discovered near Hong Kong in 1997 by Bob Pemberton, an entomologist with the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, Neo has produced millions of hungry larvae that have chewed through thick fern blankets with stunning gusto in three field tests.

''I have never, in all my career, seen a biological control that looks as promising as this one,'' said Dan Thayer, who directs invasive-plant control for the South Florida Water Management District. ''My jaw dropped,'' he said, when he saw how Neo colonies in Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Martin County stripped ferns naked.

Though they stress it's still early, Pemberton and fellow entomologist Anthony Boughton, both based at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Invasive Plant Research Laboratory in Fort Lauderdale, agree Neo is a ray of hope for what seemed an almost impossible task: stopping an exotic fern, formally known as Lygodium microphyllium, considered among the most serious threats to the Everglades.

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