The leafy, green air potato vine is menacing hardwood hammocks, pine flatwoods and wetlands in every Florida county. The habitat loss could significantly affect native Florida plants and animals such as gopher tortoises, red foxes, deer and bobcats.
Tiny, red air potato beetles from Asia have been deployed to eat the vines and suppress their growth.
State entomologist Eric Rohrig told The Tampa Tribune that in areas where the beetles were introduced last year, air potato vines aren't growing as tall.
"We believe they will kill the air potatoes," said Rohrig. "Right now, they are suppressing them. The beetles munch away and destroy all the leaves."
The beetles do not have any natural predators in Florida, but they only eat air potato vine. Scientists believe the beetles will die out if their food supply runs out.
The state studied the beetles for five years before agreeing to release them, Rohrig said.
The beetles were first released in Hillsborough County and then statewide. The effort is funded through a partnership between federal and state agriculture departments.
"Right now, the focus of the project is to release them at large infestations on public lands," Rohrig said. "In city, county and state parks, even Everglades National Park. Anywhere there is a problem. As the project progresses, we will also distribute them in residential areas. After several years, we expect to see some great results."
Air potato is a member of the yam family and produces small, oblong potatoes. It was first introduced in Florida by a botanist in 1905 and has been spreading ever since. The vines can grow up to 9 inches a day to lengths up to 70 feet.
"Once it is there, it just takes over," Rohrig said. "It runs off everything, including reptiles and amphibians. So, you end up with a monoculture — a huge hunk of land with nothing living there but air potato."
Information from: The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, http://www.tampatrib.com
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.