If I were a plant pathogen, I would want to be a Phytophthora species

In the spirit of Saint Patrick’s Day (March 17), lets talk about Ireland. In many Christian denominations of Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Day is considered a feast day. However, ironically, I want to talk about the Irish potato famine.

Phytophthora infestans St Pattys


Why are there so many Irish communities around the world? Because nearly 25% of Ireland emigrated as a result of mass starvation caused by a plant disease in the mid 1800s. This disease, known as potato late blight, is caused by Phytophthora infestans.


Phytophthora is a Greek word that translates as ‘plant destroyer’ (phyto=plant, phthora=destroyer).


Phytophthora is the name of a genus or group of microorganisms that destroy plants by causing disease. Microorganisms that cause disease are referred to as plant pathogens. Pathogens in this group are responsible for many plant diseases around the world. For example, as mentioned previously, P. infestans already changed the history of the world, and is still causing issues today, even in South African potato and tomato fields.

Phytophthora species are causing many epidemics around the world. Five of the top 12 tree diseases in the UK are caused by Phytophthora species. One of these is also responsible for Sudden Oak Death in the United States—my first introduction to Phytophthora. Click here to see pictures from a recent excursion into Sudden Oak Death infected lands.


Other notable Phytophthora diseases include Jarrah dieback in Australia, Kauri dieback in New Zealand, and Daño foliar de pino in South America.

Actually, the pathogen (Phytophthora ramorum) that causes Sudden Oak Death in the USA also causes ramorum blight in the UK, where it kills Japanese larch, an important timber species. One pathogen causing two major diseases on two continents! Both countries have spent millions trying to control the disease—not even counting the costs from damages, ecological impacts and increased regulations—yet South Africa may not even be looking out for it.

One species that is affecting South Africa is Phytophthora cinnamomi. This species, dubbed as the ‘biological bulldozer‘ in Australia, threatens South African proteas, orchards, vineyards and plantations. Even though this species is known to infect more than 2500 native species in Australia, we have a poor understanding of its impacts in fynbos here of South Africa.  This is one of the justifications for Cape Citizen Science, a research project focused on Phytophthora species in the Western Cape Province. You can contribute to this research and to the understanding of the impacts of Phytophthora cinnamomi by participating as a citizen scientist.


Unfortunately, because Phytophthora species are microscopic, they are frequently (accidentally) spread around the world. I like to think we are getting better at stopping this from happening, but the reality is that more plant pathogens are introduced every year—frequently from the global trade of live plants, but also potentially from the soles of our hiking boots.


I can’t say what would happen if Phytophthora ramorum was introduced to South Africa (investigating this would be a cool research project), but after seeing the impacts of Sudden Oak Death first hand, I can say it is definitely worth watching out for. Hopefully if it is introduced, we can detected it early and eradicate it before it spreads too far to control, like it has in the UK and the USA. This is another justification for Cape Citizen Science. By reporting dying plants, you may be the first to detect a exotic and invasive Phytophthora species. The fynbos biome is immaculate because of the high amount of endemism—having many plant species that only exist here in South Africa.  Because of its incredible biodiversity, it is important to protect, and we can protect this biome by being on the look out for dying plants, reporting the ones that you come across. Cape Citizen Science is a platform for making these reports.

Even more scary than Phytophthora ramorum are the species that havn’t been discovered by science. It is estimated that between 200-500 species of Phytophthora are yet to be discovered. For example, oak trees started dying throughout California before Phytophthora ramorum was actually described and the origin of this pathogen still remains unknown. There are many Phytophthora species out there, some that may even be native to the fynbos biome. Identifying these species is another objective of Cape Citizen Science. By participating, you could be the first to collect a completely new species of Phytophthora.


If you like it, put a ring on it…


By Davide Gaglio

Here we are again… I’m happy to let you know that I’ve survived my 3rd and final field season and I have plenty of photos to show you!

So, did you find it difficult to identify the prey in my last entry? The prey species were (2) Sole, (3) Pipefish (4) Anchovy (5) Squid and (6) Atlantic Saury If you have free time and feel like contributing to ecological research, I have tons of photographs that need identifying, and would love to use your help. Just email me (swift.terns ‘at’ gmail dot com) and we can chat about the possibilities. I believe that “Citizen Science” is an exciting way to bring people and wildlife together for conservation. Citizen-scientists can create the world’s largest research teams, gathering data on a scale that would be impossible to achieve otherwise, as these scientists are ordinary people all across the world, who are simply interested in helping researchers out. Trained scientists then analyse these data to understand how animals are affected by environmental change, including climate change, urbanization, pollution, and land use. Participants learn about their environment and have the opportunity to see their own data on maps along with those of thousands of other participants. Here’s an interesting example:


From my point of view, getting involved in swift tern citizen science is a brilliant way of spending your free time 😉 Taking photos of the adult terns can lead you to great surprises…and discoveries. For example look at this image… can you see anything special about it?

tern in flight

Well, look closely at his legs….

tern leg close-up

Yes! This swift tern has a metal ring on the right and a red colour ring on the left. As you may know, the ringing of wild birds for scientific purposes has provided a wealth of information, revealing the life histories and movements of many different species. Read more about it here.

The ringing of swift tern chicks started in South Africa in the late 1970s already. This individual was banded on Marcus Island in 1979. At age 34, this is a new record for this species, confirming that like most seabirds, swift terns have great longevity! What a coincidence… the oldest swift tern ever known was the same age as me 😀 Now, imagine discovering a tern of even greater age than that. You can be the one!

Ringing birds is a great way to study their survival and movement. It is crucial to ring birds to understand their population dynamics. As mentioned before, the difference between the terns and other local seabirds is that their population is increasing; another interesting dissimilarity is that they have extensive post-fledging care. Parents feed their chicks for several weeks after leaving the colony, during which time they can disperse long distances. So where are they going?? Here it’s my tu(e)rn again!!!…To better understand their dispersal; more than 1 500 chicks have been marked in Robben Island with engraved colour rings over the last three breeding seasons. Which means each individual has a unique code that can be seen from distance…and they look so cute! tern chick

I really had a lot of fun and great assistants over the last years during the ringing sessions. Thanks to all of you guys and girls!!

tern helpersHere some of my assistant’s projects:



So far there have been records of banded juvenile swift terns from Namibia to the Eastern Cape. Gathering dispersal records relies on the assistance from volunteers across southern Africa. And so here I need your help again… There are many immature/juvenile birds out there ready to be re-sighted by you! You can be the first to re-sight one of our banded birds in a new locality, just enjoy a walk on the beach and don’t forget your binoculars! Rings are orange, white or yellow (with black text) and green or blue (with white text). If you see any banded birds please record their location as accurately as possible (ideally GPS), the date and time of sighting, ring colour, letters on the ring (if legible) and age class (juvenile, immature or adults). tern teenagerIf a bird is found dead, please also record the number of the metal ring. Please send the information to me (swift.terns ‘at’ gmail dot com), and to SAFRING.

Your help is much appreciated!!!

Get inspired from this video.

I really hope to receive some exiting news from all over southern Africa…and I will be sure to update you soon 😉