June 17, 2013

Lab tracks Maine's tick time bomb

By Joe Lawlor / Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

Today's poll: Ticks

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Left to right, Ryan Lane, Mariana Rivera Rodriguez, Jocelyn Lahey and Conor McGrory identify types of ticks at Maine Medical Center’s Vector-borne Disease Laboratory in South Portland.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Melanie Renell uses a square piece of corduroy attached to a broomstick to gather ticks at the Kennebunk Plains in Kennebunk on Thursday for the Vector-borne Disease Laboratory of the Maine Medical Center.

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There are multiple reasons for the deer tick's expansion, researchers say.

Lubelczyk said Maine's deer tick population has exploded in part because much of the state's farmland has been converted to open space or forestland in recent decades. Invasive, non-native species, such as Japanese barberry and bittersweet vine, have spread into the converted farmland, providing prime habitat for deer ticks, he said.

With suburban sprawl, more people live in the tick's habitat, Lubelczyk said. Increasing deer populations have also helped the deer tick population grow.

A thornier question is whether climate change has contributed to the spread of Lyme disease.

The answer is unclear, but Lubelczyk said snow acts as an insulator for the deer ticks, and the ticks won't die off in the winter unless there's a deep freeze for a few weeks without snow.

"I suspect that part of the reason the range of the deer tick population has expanded (in Maine) is because of moderating temperatures," said Susan Elias, a researcher at the tick lab. "It hasn't been proven."

However, deer ticks die during extremely hot weather, which controls populations in the mid-Atlantic and Southern states, Elias said.

The tick lab also assists in researching natural products to combat ticks, so that property owners have an option other than pesticides. Rosemary wintergreen oil disrupts the nervous system in ticks, and is often available through pest control companies. Lubelczyk said a fungal spray that acts as a natural poison for ticks is also being developed.

People from all over the state send ticks to the lab for identification, either by mail or via the tick drop box. When the lab started counting the ticks it received -- in 1989 through the early 1990s -- the deer ticks were mostly from coastal areas in southern Maine. They have since spread to most of the state, and submissions are much more numerous.

The ticks go under a microscope for identification. On Wednesday, Lubelczyk was teaching volunteers and students how to tell the difference between the different varieties.

Dog ticks are pale gray, while deer ticks are darker. Dog ticks are also somewhat larger, the size of a grape when engorged with blood from feasting on the host.

Ticks can't jump, so they don't drop down on the heads of people taking walks in the forest. But Lubelczyk said it's still possible for ticks to latch onto your head if it brushes against leaves where ticks are hiding, or if you're rolling on the ground.

"Ticks are the consummate hitchhikers," Lubelczyk said.

Joe Lawlor can be reached at 791-6376 or at:

jlawlor@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @joelawlorph

 

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Today's poll: Ticks

Are you seeing more ticks this year?

Yes

No

View Results