Fungi makes flying safer

Bird strikes cost the aviation industry an estimated $US1.5 billion.

It may seem hard to believe, but fungi in grasses are helping make air travel safer in New Zealand by reducing the incidence of bird strike.

That’s because scientists have shown that airport grasses inoculated with specific fungi reduce insect numbers, which in turn reduces the number of birds on the runways.

Phil Rolston, team leader AgResearch, who was involved in the research along with Chris Pennell, Chikato van Koten, David Hume and Stuart Card, says internationally, bird strikes cost the aviation industry an estimated $US1.5 billion.

It’s such a big problem that international conferences on bird strike are held annually.

Phil says birds are attracted to airports to feed on insects and seeds, especially annuals that invade areas damaged by insects. Birds, including geese and shelducks, also feed on the “herbage” at airports and other birds arrive just to “loiter”.

In an effort to find a permanent tool to help deter birds, a multi-disciplinary approach was taken including mycologists, chemists, plant scientists, entomologists, agronomists, seed scientists and animal scientists.

The result was the development of a grass containing a special novel endophyte, known as AR601.

The endophyte is a natural fungus that grows between plant cells. It makes the grasses unpalatable to both insects and animals, deterring both insect-eating and herbivorous birds such as ducks and geese. Trials at airports in New Zealand have shown that it can deter the number of birds from sown areas by 70 to 80 per cent.

Phil says trial work was “interesting” as researchers had to work closely with airport security between flights and keep in contact with the control tower.

However, once the endophyte-inoculated grasses were established, both bird and insect numbers dropped.

The research has attracted wide international interest and is also proving valuable for those who maintain sports turfs, where birds are also not welcome.


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