Dogs are being trained to sniff out spotted lanternfly egg masses

Dog identifies scent of spotted lanternfly
Toby, a Small Münsterländer, learns how to identify the scent of spotted lanternfly egg masses in a Penn Vet lab. Photo credit Shelby Wise

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The destructive yet beautiful spotted lanternflies have been wreaking havoc on backyard farmers and Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry. Researchers hope a new tool will nip the nuisances in the bud.

Those tools are named Toby, Grizzly and Pacy — research dogs trained to identify the scent of spotted lanternfly egg masses.

The canines started training last fall with the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. Dr. Jennifer Essler, one of the lead researchers, said the dogs first practiced in the laboratory by sniffing the egg masses off of tree bark or other surfaces.

“We know that dogs have amazing noses. We know that they are used in a lot of other situations to search areas larger than people can at that speed, and so we’re like, maybe dogs can fit here too,” she said.

She said they had to get the dogs to focus on the eggs and where they’re located, rather than the scents of surrounding elements.

“We want them to really hone in on the egg masses,” she said, “so we had to make sure they weren’t interested in leaves or tree bark or any number of other things.

“Do these egg masses have an odor that they can distinguish? You can imagine the number of background odors that exist in forests or in pallets of wood or in cars, so the question for us was, can they do it?”

After six months, the answer appears to be “yes.”

The dogs correctly identified egg masses 95% of the time, while also correctly ignoring other scents 93% of the time.

“To the dogs, it’s just a game,” she said. “Like our cancer dogs, they don’t know that they are curing cancer. Cadaver dogs don’t know that they are finding people and giving closure. SLF dogs don’t know that they are saving the crop and tree industry.”

Spotted lanternflies cause serious damage to trees, plants and other crops. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, there were nearly 63,000 reports of spotted lanternflies in Pennsylvania as of August — up 72% from this time last year.

Essler said the initial research wrapped up earlier this year, just as the coronavirus pandemic hit. Toby, Grizzly and Pacy are helping with other research projects.

Now Lucky, an 18-month-old German shepherd, is being trained for active duty with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

“She’s the first spotted lanternfly dog that we've trained and are sending out into the world,” Essler said.

Lucky is two weeks into her training and should wrap up by the end of October, which is perfect timing. That’s when spotted lanternfly egg masses are laid in nature, waiting to hatch in the spring.