Even though Mainers went through a harsh and long winter this year, researchers have discovered that the deer ticks that carry Lyme disease have no problem with enduring the freezing temperatures.
This month’s weather has got significantly warmer, and the ticks are now ready to bite after hibernating in the leaves under the snow blanket.
Charles Lubelczyk is the field biologist with the Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough, and he warns us that:
“The ticks are out and active right now. They’ve woken up.”
Scientists suspect that the increased reports of Lyme and anaplasmosis in Maine are linked to climate change. The researchers at the institute started studying the way deer ticks live in the winter. They found out that under the protection of leaves and snow, a tick can survive the harsh winter.
The research institute along with the Connecticut state government has been conducting studies for the last three winters. Lubelczyk said that there are ticks in Cape Elizabeth and New Haven (Connecticut) that lived in vials in different locations. Some were covered in snow or leaves, and others were exposed to the freezing weather. Last week the researchers removed the ticks from those places to study them.
Lubelczyk explains why snow is significant to tick survival:
“The snow is just really beneficial for the tick in many ways. When the snow melts, there’s quite a lot of moisture in the soil and that really helps the ticks, keeps them healthy.”
Lubelczyk also said that survivability differs: leaves and snow increase their rate of survival by 10% – reaching a 60% survival rate. Ticks exposed and with no protection at all will survive at a rate of 30-40%.
Griffin Dill is an integrated pest management professional at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. He explains that when they reached almost zero degrees Fahrenheit in December, below the ice, there were about 30 degrees, a place where ticks could easily survive.
Ticks that are infected with anaplasma can also help them survive harsh winters, said Lubelczyk. Research shows that anaplasma helps ticks produce a glycol that protects them in the low temperature, acting as antifreeze.
Climate Change Increasing the Deer Tick’s Range
In the last 20 years, the deer ticks have kept expanding to Maine’s coast and the northern part, mostly because of warmer winters. Dry summers could reduce their activity, but if a rainy fall comes after, they’re brought back, and so the Lyme disease cases appear again.
To keep ticks away, if you go into the woods or forests, wear pants and shirts with a long sleeve and spray bug repellant. Always check if you have ticks on you. In the backyard, you must get rid of dead wood, wood piles, and leaves.
Andre Blair s is the lead editor for Advocator.ca. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Andre specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.