ALBANY — While springtime swarms of bloodthirsty black flies and mosquitoes are common in the cool, moist woods and bogs of the Adirondacks, the disease-carrying ticks that plague southern New York and New England are rare in the northern mountains.
That’s starting to change. Scientific studies have documented that ticks that carry Lyme disease and other maladies have been expanding their range northward, westward and into higher elevations.
A new field study launched this spring will document outbreaks of ticks in the Adirondacks and create a baseline from which to study their spread. The data will not only provide the basis for scientific research, but it will also give residents and hikers information about taking precautions in certain areas and will alert health professionals to watch for tick-borne illnesses.
“Now is a critical time to assess where the ticks are in the North Country and what percentage of them might be carrying the bacteria that causes Lyme disease,” said Tim Sellati, a researcher at Trudeau Institute in Saranac Lake who is conducting the study along with scientists from Paul Smith’s College and the state Health Department.
“It’s a fantastic idea. It’s exactly what we need,” said Rick Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Dutchess County, which has the highest rate of Lyme disease in New York. “If you can catch ticks in the act of expanding into a new area, that’s a fantastic public health benefit.”
Ostfeld, who’s not connected with the Adirondack research, said such studies are rare because it’s hard to get financing. “Agencies don’t want to provide funding for surveillance in advance,” he said.
A state Senate task force released a report last week recommending state actions to fight Lyme disease, including studying tick populations, killing agents, bait vaccines for mice, public education and research into its links to other diseases and deaths. The task force report cited 462 cases reported through the first week of June in New York and a recent federal estimate of 300,000 new cases annually, with only a fraction actually reported.
Lyme disease was first identified in the 1970s in southern New England. The bacterial infection, which causes joint pain and problems with the heart and nervous system, is spread by black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks because deer and mice are their primary hosts. In New York, the ticks are most prevalent in the mid-Hudson Valley, where five of the state’s nine Lyme-related deaths since 1986 have occurred.
Melissa Prusinski, a researcher with the Health Department who’s involved in the Adirondack study, said the leading edge of Lyme disease and black-legged ticks has reached the southern Adirondacks and central New York.
The study will focus on three survey sites, in Queensbury, Schroon Lake and Black Brook, all in the eastern Adirondacks. Paul Smith’s students who are working as lake stewards checking boats for aquatic invasive species will also do the tick collecting.
Collection involves dragging a 1-square-meter sheet of white corduroy cloth through underbrush where ticks are perching on foliage with front legs outstretched to grab a passing animal. Last week, the researchers collected ticks in Albany’s Pine Bush Preserve, which is being used as a control site because its tick population has been documented by the Health Department.
The field researchers wear disposable white coveralls with the pant legs tucked into their socks so any ticks that cling to them can be easily seen and removed. The ticks collected will be tested for disease bacteria.
“What’s really novel about this field study is that we’re surveying the tick population and studying the bacteria at the leading edge of infestation,” Sellati said. “We want to compare our results to the Hudson Valley and see if there are differences in the ticks and in the virulence of the bacteria.”
The study, which is a collaborative effort involving disease experts, forest ecologists and tick experts, fits in with Sellati’s vision of establishing a research center of excellence for Lyme and associated illnesses at the Trudeau Institute, an infection and immunology research facility that began as a tuberculosis sanitarium in 1884.