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Texas by Nature

Cactus Moth Imperils Texas Wildlife

Invasive cactus moth caterpillars devour prickly pear cactus and threaten wildlife and agriculture.

Landowners urged to look for signs of invasive species 

An Argentinean, cactus-devouring moth is on the march, and Texas landowners are being asked to be on guard against a red-and-black caterpillar that could spell big trouble for the state’s iconic prickly pear.

Having chewed and fluttered its way along the Gulf Coast from Florida into Alabama in less than 10 years, the cactus moth is moving fast.

Biologists fear that if the moth establishes itself in the Southwest it could wreak havoc on millions of acres of prickly pear, wildlife and agriculture.

When the moth was discovered on Isla Mujeres, an island 8 miles from Cancun on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, there was concern it could invade from two directions.

“Fortunately, through the diligence of local officials and conservation organizations, an early detection and rapid response effort appears to have eradicated the cactus moth from Isla Mujeres,” said Jim Bergan, The Nature Conservancy’s Texas director of science. “This is an important example of how vigilance can prevent the moth’s potentially devastating effects on wildlife habitat and rural economies.”

Prickly pear provides food, shelter and protection for native wildlife and also serves as an emergency feed source for cattle and white-tailed deer during drought. It is a major cash food crop in Mexico, for its pads and sweet fruits. Cactus also helps stabilize desert soils and reduce erosion.

The cactus moth (Cactoblastis cactorum) was introduced in Australia, Caribbean islands, South Africa and Hawaii as a means of controlling cactus. It quickly became apparent, however, that the non-native had turned invasive. A nondescript brown moth, Cactoblastis is most easily identified in its caterpillar phase, when it is bright orange-red with black bands.

Landowners should watch for prickly pear that is brown, hollow, transparent or riddled with holes. For more information about the moth or to report sightings, contact your local agriculture extension agent.

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