A new pest—southern armyworm, Spodoptera eridania (Stoll)—has been discovered in West and Central Africa!
This introduced second armyworm species from the Americas was first found in cassava fields in south-eastern Nigeria in December 2016, reported Dr Georg Goergen, Entomologist/Biocontrol Specialist and Head of IITA’s Biodiversity Center in Bénin.
The recent introduction of the fall armyworm (FAW) into the African continent and its growing threat to agriculture and food security have caused great concern in many of the 44 countries of tropical Africa invaded by this pest. Originating from the tropical regions of the Americas the FAW adult has a remarkable capacity for long distance migration and high female fertility. Its crop-destroying caterpillars can cause serious damage to maize but also to other important crops such as sorghum, rice, and vegetables.
These attributes have made the control of FAW a challenging task. The development of management options adapted to Africa has mobilized international experts and the national capacities of affected countries and raised general attention to caterpillar attacks on various crops.
Farmers had first observed an outbreak of caterpillars that caused severe defoliation on cassava in a 450-hectare field near Ubiaja in southeastern Nigeria in late 2016. Alcohol-preserved samples of the larvae were sent for diagnosis to the Biodiversity Center at the IITA station in Bénin, which did not match the morphological characteristics of FAW caterpillars. The species, however, appeared to have related origins and resembled closely the African cotton leafworm (S. littoralis [Boisduval]). In the absence of adult moths, it was concluded that the latter species, widespread in tropical Africa and known to feed on various kinds of food, must have attacked some sweet varieties of cassava that are less toxic to potential insect pests.
According to Goergen, SAW belongs to the cosmopolitan genus Spodoptera that encompasses 31 species worldwide including many of the most important agricultural armyworm caterpillars such as FAW. The detection of the new pest adds to the eight species already known to occur on the African continent. Caterpillars, particularly mature instars of the SAW, are extremely variable in their general appearance and can hardly be identified based on physical characters alone.
Accurate identification of adults is not easy since S. eridania belongs to the category of Spodoptera moths lacking strong contrasting patterns on the forewings. They measure 33-38 mm in length, are commonly cream or gray, bear a faint kidney-shaped spot, and look identical in both sexes. The only constant feature is a dark brown streak at the inner margin of the forewing.
The southern armyworm is native to the Americas, occurring widely from southern USA to Argentina. With records of more than 200 host plants belonging to 58 plant families including many important crops, the species is probably the most polyphagous species within the genus Spodoptera. Depending on the host plant and temperature, the southern armyworm can complete its life cycle within 30-40 days and is able to produce 1500-3000 eggs over its lifetime.