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Tick invasion bringing epidemics

Posted on Oct 29, 2013

During my first nearly three months in Chautauqua County, New York and surrounding areas I have met hundreds of naturalists and birders, spoken here at RTPI a few times, and discussed countless topics relating to our local environment. Invariably I end up comparing what I have seen or heard of here to my life in Connecticut. One ideal I try to impart is that we do not want this region to end up like Connecticut has in many respects (sorry, it’s true!) pertaining to the natural world. The most frightening aspect that always receives stunned reactions and fearful glances is when I discuss the tick invasion that is spreading from the northeast – one that is decidedly related to our decaying environment.

I have yet to see a tick here in nearby areas of New York and Pennsylvania. I have been told by many there are pockets here and there when you can expect to find some including a few places further south and east in Pennsylvania, a locality or two by Lake Erie, and so forth. In Connecticut, I tell people, I would have hundreds of ticks on me in a given year. One can be on the edge of woodlands in December or January and find a tick crawling up their leg. If you walk around your yard in the spring or fall you’re going to have some covering you or your dog, guaranteed. Ticks are everywhere and latch on to everything warm, human or pet, regardless of what toxic chemicals you apply. Often enough they are the Deer Tick, or Blacklegged Tick (Ixodes scapularis), which carry multiple diseases at increasingly high rates.

Anaplasmosis, babesiosis, powassan, and Lyme disease are only some of the diseases transmitted by these ticks. If those are not enough more pathogens transmitted by ticks in the U.S. are still being discovered with Borrelia miyamotoi being a recent example. Lyme disease (aptly named after being first isolated in Lyme and Old Lyme, Connecticut) is the most common and widespread of the tick-borne diseases that are present to such a high degree that one almost assumes they will be infected if they find an attached Deer Tick.

I have had Lyme disease that thankfully featured a large and classic bulls-eye rash alerting me to the infection. This allowed me to receive antibiotics very quickly. I was also extremely fortunate that my body dealt with the disease well and I suffered only minor symptoms compared to what many others do. Many have often severe symptoms for years after and will likely for the rest of their lives. Every few months I have an odd feeling in my muscles, like they need to be stretched or pulled, almost like an itch you can’t scratch – this is the same very unique feeling I had during muscle aches and pains when fighting my initial Lyme infection.

What astounds me the most is that this is an active and ongoing health disaster with potentially multiple epidemics that virtually no one is talking about as tens of thousands of individuals are diagnosed with these diseases every single year. There may be hundreds of thousands of cases if you include the ones that are misdiagnosed or entirely undiagnosed. Look at this GIF of CDC Lyme disease reported cases maps from 2001-2011!


Bear in mind this is missing an enormous number of people who contract Lyme disease. This is a subtle plague spreading across the continent. What would happen if we added several new diseases to the map? How about if we continually discover additional infections in other areas where, say, doctors are not aware they should be on the lookout for them? While I was lucky and had an obvious rash most people do not have one and simply develop confounding symptoms. Even if they are eventually found to be from Lyme a significant amount of time will have passed before treatment occurs worsening both the short and long-term health of the patient. No, I’m not a doctor, but I do speak about this disease in certain terms from not only my experience but that of many other friends and relatives who have been positively diagnosed via examination or blood test during prolonged ordeals.

These tick-borne diseases do not have to be nearly as prevalent or widespread, and the reason they are is mostly a fault of what we have done to our environment. It is not a coincidence that the Lyme cases seen above are concentrated in and expanding from developed areas fraught with natural disasters. The White-footed Mouse and White-tailed Deer are two major tick carriers that we have allowed to expand almost unchecked in fragmented forests and disturbed habitats. Non-native plants are extremely efficient at housing ticks, such as a forest floor of Japanese Barberry or a Pachysandra-lined home. This fascinating study suggests that a single Timber Rattlesnake – a species now nearly extinct in Connecticut due to humans, for example – can consume 2,500-4,500 ticks a year! As they suggest, how many people are spared the disease each year because of these snakes in other regions?

We have to work quickly in order to prevent all of these diseases from overtaking other regions of the country and infecting thousands and thousands of other people. Think of the eventual healthcare costs for just a moment and how those millions upon millions of dollars could be instead used to get ahead of the front and fight back the epidemics by protecting predators, removing non-native plants, and restoring healthy forests across the region. This is a tremendous task but it is the most terrifying example of how our neglect of the natural world is going to end up harming us severely as a species more and more as every year passes.

The CDC page of disease “prevention” strikes me as mostly comical and clearly written by someone who has not lived in these areas or who does not leave their home. Good luck finding every single tick on you every time you walk outside, and applying those deadly chemicals (to you, not always the ticks) does little to help. This is a Deer Tick nymph I removed from my Shetland Sheepdog earlier this year as it was on a patch of white fur – do you think you could find every one of these microscopic organisms on your clothing, body, children or pets?

Deer tick nymph

Most disheartening is that this plague makes it so that parents do not want their young children enjoying the outdoors or running through the woods and many people believing we should only cut down even more of the forests and have nothing except for blades of grass at our feet. This negative connotation with nature is not something we want to pass on. We at RTPI intend to work on observing, studying, analyzing and managing habitats and specific species of conservation concern in order to restore and maintain the natural balance, and hopefully stem the tide headed to our local environment. I know I feel much better knowing I am living in a far safer region…for the moment. And I intend to keep it that way.


Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation & Outreach Coordinator

Photo 1 via CDC; photo 2 © Scott Kruitbosch