New species of ticks are reaching the shores of the United States, bringing with them deadlier diseases, rapid reproduction processes and a whole bunch of uncertainty for the researchers and environmentalists who monitor their parasitic spread.
The Asian longhorn tick, as its name suggests, comes from a continent on the opposite side of the globe, but has come to America and become a scourge on livestock for a little over a year.
On Aug. 7, four days after Pennsylvania announced it was the seventh state housing the tick, the Maryland Department of Agriculture confirmed it is the eighth state to harbor the pest, which also resides in southern New York, several other East Coast states and as far south and west as Arkansas.
This is not to be confused with the Asian longhorned beetle, an invasive insect that kills hardwood trees and so far has not reached the Adirondacks.
Since the Asian longhorn tick, the first new species of tick in the U.S. in half a century, has only been commonly monitored in the country since around last year, there is very little known about the effects of its presence here, but scientists have reason for concern.
It is not shown to carry diseases in U.S. so far, but in China it is a possible vector of a virus that causes thrombocytopenia syndrome, which results in fever, vomiting, hemorrhaging and organ failure and can have fatality rates ranging from 10 to 30 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It has also been shown in labs to have the capacity to carry many of the same viruses as blacklegged ticks.
Asian longhorn ticks can reproduce without mating, with females laying hundreds or thousands of eggs after feeding on livestock. They are also known to swarm livestock by the thousands, reportedly killing young animals through exsanguination, or draining blood so rapidly it kills the host.
The tick can survive in cold climates, such as Russia, and in April the New Jersey Department of Agriculture announced that the Asian longhorn tick population successfully overwintered in the state and has become “established.”
Another possible virus the tick can carry is Powassan, which already threatens the southern end of the North Country.
Last year, Saratoga County had three confirmed cases of Powassan, one of them deadly. This summer there has been one reported case. Powassan is a virus without a vaccine that causes brain swelling.
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Powassan can also be carried by the blacklegged tick and the woodchuck tick, but only the blacklegged tick frequently bites humans.
Though Powassan was found in 22 of the 2,700 ticks — less than 1 percent — collected in Saratoga County last summer, according to state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, it has not shown up in ticks in the Adirondacks.
Lee Ann Sporn, a professor at Paul Smith’s College, conducts blacklegged tick research in Clinton, Essex, Franklin, St. Lawrence, Herkimer and Hamilton counties with the financial help of the state Department of Health and field research of a dozen seniors at the college.
She hopes this year to establish the northern edge of Powassan-positive ticks through her research. She will work with hunters to collect deer blood samples at Blue Line Sports in Saranac Lake when hunters bring their deer in for processing. Deer get bit by many ticks in their lifetimes and provide a cross-section of the diseases and viruses the ticks are transferring.
Most types of ticks carry viruses but do not bite people; however, if ticks of different species start sharing blood, they can all become vectors for viruses.
Sporn will also begin monitoring the woodchuck tick this year. It is rarely encountered because it stays in woodchuck burrows, but can often bite dogs that snoop around the woodchuck homes. Her son recently was bit by one while he worked on a bridge.
Tracking woodchuck tick numbers requires sticking a dirty sock on a plumber’s snake down into a burrow and waiting for the parasites to latch on.
“Who else is going to do that but Paul Smith’s students?” Sporn asked. “Who would have ever guessed that finding woodchuck burrows would help human health?”
Sporn also said she will monitor the spread of babesiosis, a malaria-like disease that was introduced to the region in 2016 when two cases were reported at the Wickham Marsh in AuSable Chasm.
“We thought, ‘Well, it will spread from there,’ but the next year it was everywhere,” Sporn said.
She is now collecting ticks that are babesiosis-positive in many different counties, which leads her to believe that the virus and ticks are traveling on birds.
Babesiosis can give people flu-like symptoms and it is treatable, although many people get no symptoms at all. But it can be life-threatening for elderly people or those with weak immune systems, or liver or kidney disease, according to the CDC.