A Population Crash… For Now
If you’ve gone hiking recently, you’ve probably seen the spongy moth and its effects on the trees. The spongy moth, otherwise referred to as the LDD moth (Lymantria dispar dispar) is a hairy, red and blue caterpillar that kills trees. This invasive pest from Eurasia feeds on the leaves of many types of trees but prefers maple, oak, poplar and birch.
In the past, this pest typically went unnoticed but became a household name in 2021 after an outbreak decimated trees across Ontario.
Using ecological monitoring data, CVC has measured the outbreak’s damage to trees and projected population levels for this year.
Spongy Moth Population Trends
Outbreaks of spongy moth are cyclical. Most years, numbers are low and spongy moths go largely unnoticed. But, every seven to 10 years the population spikes and becomes damaging.
Using data from CVC’s Integrated Watershed Monitoring Program (IWMP), the damage to ecosystems from spongy moth can be measured. IWMP tracks ecosystem health in the Credit River Watershed by monitoring forests, wetlands, streams and groundwater. IWMP has been collecting tree health data in forest and wetland ecosystems since 2009. Using data from 30 forests and 23 wetlands, we can tell the story of the 2021 spongy moth outbreak.
The spongy moth population was small and stable from 2009 to 2018, causing little stress to trees. In 2019, we observed more damage to leaves and a higher spongy moth population than before, signaling a potential outbreak emerging.
This trend continued over the next two years, where there was a population spike and massive defoliation across the watershed. 2021 was the largest spongy moth outbreak ever recorded in Ontario. Ninety-one per cent of IWMP monitoring stations were infested in 2021 and 24 per cent of monitored deciduous trees were defoliated.
The population crashed in 2022, signaling the end of the outbreak and a return to pre-outbreak levels. This crash was caused by viruses, fungi and parasitoid wasps that act as natural population controls. These controls end outbreaks by killing spongy moths when the population gets high.
Few monitored trees died as a result of the 2021 spongy moth outbreak. Most trees in the forests and wetlands recovered well, as they have energy reserves to withstand temporary stresses such as the spongy moth.
Population Projection for 2023
In addition to IWMP’s monitoring, CVC collects data to project spongy moth populations through the Invasive Species Monitoring Program (ISMP). Through this program, we monitor many kinds of invasive species across the watershed and recently added spongy moth population projections after the large 2021 outbreak.
For the past two years, we have monitored spongy moth populations in 30 forests across the watershed. This involves monitoring the amount of spongy moth eggs in standardized plots over the winter to predict the severity of the following year’s defoliation.
Based on this survey data, our ISMP team predicts this year there will be low spongy moth populations and defoliation rates. This was a large decrease from 2022, where we predicted 53 per cent of sites would be moderately or severely defoliated.
Although this pest may go unnoticed for now, another outbreak will likely occur within the next decade. In the meantime, we will continue to monitor pests like spongy moth to keep track of known stressors and emerging threats in our watershed while measuring their impact.
By Joe Gabriel, Technician, Watershed Monitoring