Alberta researchers recently confirmed that the baneful mountain pine beetle has infested a different type of tree that would allow the pest to spread into Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.
University of Alberta scientists have discovered that the tiny beetles can jump from the Lodgepole pines of western Canada to boreal forest Jack pines.
An early April study published in the journal Molecular Ecology states, “Here we show for the first time successful mountain pine beetle attack in natural Jack pine stands at the leading edge of the epidemic.”
Mountain pine beetles were recently found in Edmonton's boreal forests.
“This once unsuitable habitat is now a novel environment for mountain pine beetle to exploit, a potential risk which could be exacerbated by further climate change.”
The beetles manage to jump trees by “spreading through hybrid trees that have acted like a bridge between the two types of timber,” explains Assistant Professor Janice Cooke, Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta.
Back in March, weeks of deep cold punctuated by brief mild spells were an encouraging sign for beetle mortality.
However with the recent findings, scientists are once again on high alert. “The consequences of host-range expansion for the vast ecosystem could be significant,” reads the report.
British Columbia and Alberta have been battling the mountain pine beetle infestation since the 1990's.
The bugs kill the tree by depositing a fungus (eggs) inside the tree's bark. This inevitably cuts off the tree's water flow, destroying it.
Small amounts of the pine beetle help keep forests healthy by killing off old, sick pine trees. But when there are too many beetles, they attack mature, healthy trees.
At this point, the beetles have destroyed millions of Lodgepole pines in the West. Scientists fear the same outcome will take place in the boreal forests that run eastward all the way to Atlantic Canada.
According to scientists, how far eastward the beetle moves is largely determined by the weather.
Moderate winter and summer temperatures keep the beetles healthy and able to fully develop.
They spread by developing wings and fly in search of new trees or are blown east by prevailing westerly winds.
The Alberta government has spent approximately $255 million grappling the bugs since 2006. It's estimated to have wiped out about 3.2 million trees across the province.
And in British Columbia, the beetles have infested pine forests over an area five times the size of Vancouver Island -- killing around 675 million cubic metres of timber. Recently $9 million was put forth to help with the epidemic.
Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario are bracing for the potential onslaught of these 'tree-killers' and are looking to Ottawa for a national beetle plan, including federal funding.
With files from CBC News, The Canadian Press and Alexandra Pope