“Beating the heat” isn’t the only problem southerners face when venturing outdoors. Within the past year, there have been 289 cases of Spotted Fever Rickettsiosis (“Rocky Mountain spotted fever”) and 41 cases of Lyme disease, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. The most common carrier of these diseases: ticks.
Emily Merritt, research associate of the Department of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, felt there was a need for a greater understanding of the causes and effects of tick-borne illnesses. She proposed a research project centered on the study of tick populations and transmittable diseases in Alabama.
“I’m originally from New York,” Merritt said. “Coming here I was very concerned about ticks and tick-borne illnesses, and I noticed that not a lot of current research was being done in that area.”
Lyme disease is endemic in seven counties in Alabama and can spread even farther with the help of hosts.
The goal of the research team is to study the lifestyles of ticks and the patterns of tick-borne illnesses in different Alabama counties so that in the future, diseases can become more preventable.
“Say someone gets sick at Chewacla but they don’t know what it’s from or what is in the area,” Merritt said. “If we produced a map of Chewacla of which ticks are where and the primary diseases that ticks carry, then someone could go to their doctor and say, ‘I think I have this.’”
Graeme Lockaby, associate dean of research in the Department of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. said the results of his recent West Nile virus research will help him better understand data from the current project.
“The common denominator in both West Nile and tick-borne illnesses was climate,” Lockaby said. “We have gotten some insight into certain vegetation types and are seeing differentiation and abundance (of ticks) in certain areas.”
Projects such as this can take years to plan and even longer to gather data. Although Merritt and Lockaby are in the beginning stages, they have spent the past year gathering resources and manpower and are even partnering with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
“At some point we hope to have them scan deer for ticks that the hunters bring in during hunting season,” Meritt said.
The research team consists of six people, but Lockaby said as the project expands, the number could grow to include many more.
“We are currently looking for students who would be interested in this project,” Lockaby said. “We have received an impressive degree of interest from the public throughout the state. It’s gratifying that people seem to appreciate what we are doing, because it makes us feel relevant.”
Sarah Zohdy, assistant professor in disease ecology in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, said her part of research will focus on the role small mammals play in the transfer of tick-borne illnesses.
“When ticks are at the larvae stage of their life cycle, they begin to do what we call ‘questing’ where they search for mammals to feed on,” Zohdy said. “The white-footed mouse in particular is the most likely to transfer Lyme disease.”
Zohdy said her research can determine which small mammals are the biggest transmitters of disease and if diversity in the mouse populations will help to solve the problem.
“I want to see the impact humans living in certain areas and the environment have on the spread of tick-borne illnesses,” Zohdy said.
Merritt and Lockaby will deal with the tick samples, collecting and analyzing the data.
“We will go into the field and collect the ticks and bring them back to be identified,” Merritt said. “Eventually we will test them for different diseases.”
To conduct research like this, Lockaby said it is important to carefully plan and continuously modify techniques.
“We could be dealing with potentially tens of thousands of different samples,” Lockaby said. “There is so much variation it is very important to be critical in where we place the plots to study.”
The project is funded by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the U.S Forest Service.