The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick

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When I was little, the appearance of a tick itself was reason for alarm.

“So-and-so found a tick the other day!” Mom would announce. “Be careful!” I think I had one on me–just one–my entire childhood. I’m not sure whether there were really so few ticks, or if we were simply bad at finding them. I do know that when I moved to Maryland, I didn’t have to be good at finding the little parasites. Huge numbers of them found me.

Seriously, go for a walk in my neighborhood in the summer, and you’re likely to pull off ten or twenty just while you’re walking. When you get back to the house, strip off your clothes and find a dozen more. They won’t have had time to embed, yet, so it’s not a big deal. You just get in the habit of routine regular tick checks.

Incidentally, I don’t find the standard advice of long pants and so forth very useful. Sure, fewer ticks will make it to skin that way, but some will, and they’ll be impossible to find without taking your pants off, which the neighbors tend to frown on. So the ticks get more time in which the crawl into someplace inaccessible and bite.

My advice?

  • Wear as little clothing as possible and then investigate every tickle and itch immediately–it might be a tick.
  • Do a thorough tick check and take a shower immediately upon returning home.
  • If you walk through a tick-hatch and get zillions of the tiny things on you, don’t panic. They can’t give you any diseases because they’re babies and don’t have any diseases yet. Remove them as best you can, stick them on a length of tape so they can’t escape and bite you again, then invest in a large supply of anti-itch cream.
  • Don’t bother learning to identify different species of tick. They can all give you SOMETHING, so just avoid getting bitten by any of them, and if you get sick, go see your doctor.
  • Look up the proper way to remove an embedded tick. NEVER put anything on the tick to make it let go, because that makes the tick vomit into you first and then you’ll definitely have whatever it was was carrying.

I’m not a doctor, this is just my personal approach to the problem.

The reason I bring all this up is to make clear I am personally familiar with the density of the tick population in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and I am equally aware that New England has fewer of them. Don’t get me wrong, New England does have ticks–Lyme disease is named after a town in Connecticut, after all–but the problem is simply not on the same scale.

That could be changing.

There are reasons other than climate change. Tick population dynamics and the epidemiology of tick-borne illnesses are complex, inter-related topics with a lot of variables. For example, modern land-use practices, which has converted vast areas of the United States into mosaics of tiny forested patches with houses mixed in, favors white-footed mice, which are the primary hosts of deer ticks–which transmit Lyme disease. The mice, after all, can use tiny habitat patches (and houses) just fine, but their predators can’t. No foxes, no bobcats, no black snakes, no owls, etc., all adds up to oodles of mice and oodles of ticks. So, some kinds of ticks would be a bigger problem than they used to be, even without climate change.

But yes, the climate is helping.

The story is a complex one, because not only do factors other than climate influence tick populations, but the response of ticks to climate is not straight-forward. For example, ticks of the same species may become active at different temperatures in different parts of their range. All these different variables working together mean that predictions of what climate change will do to different species of ticks can disagree with each other widely. But some increases in tick-borne illnesses have been traced to climate change–so we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but in the present, the ticks are worse in some places already because of climate.

For example, the two species responsible for infecting people I actually know, deer ticks and lone star ticks, are both expanding their range because of climate change. Both can transmit multiple illnesses. Lone stars, named for the white spot on their backs, can give you a (possibly life-long) allergy to red meat. Without giving away any individual’s medical history, I can say I’ve seen this one, it’s quite real. And lone stars are now in all New England states, though they didn’t used to be.

(By the way, the article that I’ve linked to above describes lone stars as “hunting in packs.” I’ve seen the behavior the article is describing, and the phrase is misleading. The ticks aren’t acting cooperatively, like mini-wolves. But, unlike deer ticks, they can and do walk towards potential hosts. In my neighborhood, population densities are often high enough that half a dozen might be near enough to notice the same person, and if you stay still for a few minutes they’ll converge on you. They’re easy to avoid or remove, but it’s creepy to watch.)

And then there’s the winter ticks, which have always been in New England, but warming climates are letting their numbers surge so high that they’re literally bleeding moose calves to death.

All of which is to say that if you head north in the summer, as we do, and you notice more ticks on yourself and your pets than you used to, as we have, it’s not your imagination.

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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