A tick detective wants to understand what drives tick abundance

Middlebury Assistant Professor David Allen prepares to inspect a piece of canvas that has been pulled through the woods to collect ticks. Todd Balfour / Middlebury College
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David Allen is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Middlebury College, studying tick and tick-borne pathogens ecology.
Which question are you trying to answer with your work?
David Allen: I want to understand what influences the frequency and infection rate of black-legged or deer ticks with the bacteria of Lyme disease. We broadly understand what it takes for the tick to live in an area, but we find it harder to explain why there are so enormous differences in tick frequencies in certain places and in certain years.
How exactly do you measure the tick frequency?
Allen: We measure it by what is known as "drag cloth sampling". We pull a white cloth 1 by 1 meter across the forest floor. Ticks looking for a host we call questing will attach to the fabric when it passes over them. On each of our lots, we pull the sheet 200 meters above the forest floor and check it every 10 meters. This is the standard way of measuring tick frequency.
What made you want to study ticks?
Allen: I grew up in Vermont in the 1980s and 1990s. During this time, I don't remember ever seeing a black-legged tick or knowing anyone with Lyme disease. When I returned to the state to teach at Middlebury College in 2012, I got a lot of ticks while hiking. My research has been fueled by this rapid and dramatic change in the tick population here.
Why is your work important to the public?
Allen: The incidence of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases has increased dramatically in recent years. In general, if scientists could better predict where ticks are most common, we could develop targeted tick control strategies, or at least create prevention messages for people in those areas, and then hopefully begin to reduce the rates of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases .
Black-legged ticks can transmit pathogens that cause Lyme disease at the nymph stage when they are difficult to see on the skin. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
What is important about ticks that most people are not familiar with?
Allen: Ticks have three life stages: larva, nymph and adult. The bacteria of Lyme borreliosis can transmit the second two life stages. When most people think of ticks, they imagine the adult life stage. For the black-legged tick, this is about the size of a sesame. I think most people don't have a good picture of what a nymph tick looks like and how small it is. Nymphs are responsible for most of the Lyme disease transmission to people because they are so difficult to spot when they feed on you.
What was the most surprising result of your work?
Allen: I'm surprised how different the tick frequency can be depending on the location or year. We found that in two locations just three miles apart, one can have 20 times more ticks than the other. And then the same location can increase or decrease four times in frequency from one year to the next.
What do you hope to continue studying?
Allen: We just started studying the small mammal community. Black-legged ticks take a single blood meal at every stage of life. During the larval and nymph life stages, these blood meals typically come from small mammals such as mice or chipmunks. The ticks acquire Lyme disease bacteria from these animals. My students and I have just started tracking the populations of these small mammals to better understand how they contribute to the frequency and infection of ticks.
Any stories from the field?
Allen: We bait the little mammal traps with a mixture of oats and peanut butter. It turns out that bears love this as much as the mice. Once, after setting 100 traps, we returned the next morning and found them all tossed around. Some were dented or even pierced with hog's claw markings.
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This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts.
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David Allen is supported by an Institutional Development Award (IDeA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under grant number P20GM103449. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of NIGMS or NIH.

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