Biological control of invasive alien species

Australia’s “ferals” — invasive alien weeds, pests and diseases — are the largest bioeconomic threats to Australian agriculture. They harm our natural ecosystems and biodiversity. We have delivered solutions for sustainable management of invasive animals and many weeds and are continuing to research new biological control methods and approaches.

The Challenge

Invasive species cause major economic losses

Invasive alien species (IAS) cause high losses to agricultural production and are the largest biological threat to global food security.  They are also one of the top two global threats to biodiversity. IAS cost Australia at least $11 billion per annum in agricultural and environmental damage and are the greatest driver of native species extinction.

They also have the ability to impact human health and our way of life; for example, alien mosquitoes transmit human diseases in Australia. 

Australia is signed up to the Convention on Biological Diversity target which requires all IAS to be identified and processes put in place to control them by 2020.

Our Response

The benefits of biological control

CSIRO undertakes research to manage and limit the impacts of nationally important IAS.

An adult of the beetle Deuterocampta quadrijuga, a biocontrol agent released on the weed, blue heliotrope.

The most successful method of controlling invasive weeds and pests is biological control, or “biocontrol”, using their own enemies against them. These “biocontrol agents” can be bacteria, fungi, viruses, or parasitic or predatory organisms, such as insects.

Biocontrol agents are highly specific and usually found in the native home range of the invasive species. Candidate biocontrol agents undergo extensive safety testing to assess unacceptable risks to domestic, agricultural, and native species. To be allowed entry into Australia, a candidate biocontrol agent is independently assessed using internationally-recognised protocols. .

Biocontrol is the most cost effective and environmentally benign solution to managing IAS because when it works it does not require reapplication like chemicals or poisons. Most biocontrol agents for weeds and insects, once established, are self-sustaining and don’t have to be reapplied.

Unfortunately, biocontrol is not a ‘silver bullet’ and will not solve all of Australia's invasive species problems because effective agents are not always found. In the case of the two rabbit viruses – Myxomatosis and Calicivirus – virus-host co-evolution has led to a decline in effectiveness of the viruses over time as rabbits have developed or attained resistance to them. This is similar to how bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotics. As a result, we are continuing to search for new strains to counteract these effects.

We are applying our skills to provide solutions for managing invasive species of national significance including mammals (predominately rabbits), fish (starting with carp), weeds (that affect agriculture and/or the environment) and invertebrate pests.

Case studies

  • Reducing Australia’s carp invasion

    CSIRO scientists are undertaking rigorous tests to determine the safety and suitability of the candidate biocontrol agent Cyprinid herpesvirus 3 (CyHV-3) in managing European carp numbers in Australia.

  • Controlling those pesky rabbits

    The release of the two rabbit biocontrol agents - Myxoma virus and Rabbit Calicivirus - led to a dramatic reduction of Australia’s rabbit population and has recovered more than $70 billion to the agricultural industries since 1950.

  • Biological control agent tackles Crofton weed

    Crofton weed—also known as sticky snakeroot or Mexican devil—has been smothering native bush in Australia since the early 1900s. But now the release of a new biological control agent brings hope in managing this invasive weed.

  • New dung beetles to bury dung and reduce bush flies

    In 2014 our researchers released French and Spanish spring-active Onthophagus vacca and Bubus bubalus dung beetles in Australia’s latest effort to improve dung burial. Burying dung improves pasture productivity, sequesters carbon and controls buffalo and bush flies.

  • Parkinsonia biological control program

    The weed Parkinsonia forms impenetrable thickets, decreases productivity of pastoral rangelands and competes with native plants. New biocontrol agents may help manage severe infestations across northern Australia.

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