As the number of ticks and the illnesses they spread rise around the state, University of Maine researchers in multiple disciplines are conducting research in an effort to protect residents, animals and the environment. UMaine’s new Plant, Animal and Insect Laboratory, slated to open by early 2018, will offer tick identification, as well as safe screening of tick-borne diseases.
As far as the deer tick — which is the species of most concern — goes, 25–30 years ago, we weren’t really seeing a whole lot of that species here in the state of Maine.
The mid ’80s, early ’90s, we really started to see a significant increase in southern Maine. Since that time, they’ve really expanded, both geographically and populationwise. We’re seeing a much larger numbers of ticks, and we’re seeing them throughout the state.
Since climate is generally warming throughout the state now, it’s hypothesized that the ticks are better able to survive the winter. They’re able to form a long-term reproductive population the following year.
This increased abundance of the tick that you see associated with increased survival of the tick is what’s contributing to this upsurge in the number of Lyme disease cases. The main tick that transmits Lyme disease here in the Northeast is Ixodes scapularis, which is the blacklegged tick, and also known as the deer tick.
Deer ticks are very sensitive creatures to humidity, especially the nymphs. Now the nymphs come out in the summertime. That’s when we see most of our Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases, like anaplasmosis and babesiosis.
These cases are associated with those nymphal deer ticks, but the nymphs are very tiny. As many people know, they’re the size of a poppy seed, and they’ve very easy to miss. A nymph can bite you, say, during July, and fall off, and you might never know it.
As of now, our tick laboratory here on campus is limited to a converted office space. We’re really limited to just looking at a tick and determining what species it is. We really can’t go much further beyond that in terms of looking at what diseases or pathogens they may be carrying.
We’ve had a need for new facilities for decades. Our facilities have been out of date. Planning for this lab really started back in 2010. Once this lab is complete, we’re going to be able to look at those ticks and tell you whether or not they have agents in them that can cause diseases for humans.
What the public needs to know is that this is going to be a place where they can send samples. Whether they’re plant material, insect specimens, ticks, or other types of things that they’re concerned about, we can identify them, we can test them, we can tell them what the issues are and what’s the most cost-effective way to address that problem.
Whether they’re commercial landscapers, whether they work in the horticulture industry, whether they’re commercial livestock operators, veterinary services; it doesn’t matter who it is. We’re going to be able to do what we can best for them with research and public service.
One of the really exciting things is that we will have a new necropsy lab. The new lab is bigger. It will be much more biosecure, easier to have safe practices. It’s going to be such a much better situation.
I think the new lab and the resources and the biosecurity that’s associated with that facility, will allow us to take more of a proactive approach to some of the tick issues here in the state.
Rather than reacting to some of the emerging problems, we’ll now be able to really focus on determining what some future problems may be and the ways in which people can combat those before it becomes a particular issue.