Thursday, November 13, 2014

Ticks and Keds

A week ago I was wandering through a local conservation area, gathering information on plants and animals for a stewardship plan. It was dry and brushy and full of small blacklegged ticks. I picked them off my pants as I walked. Later I checked my body carefully for any hitchhikers. These are the ticks that cause Lyme disease and New Hampshire has the dubious distinction of having the highest incidence of the disease, especially in the coastal region, where I live and work.
A female blacklegged tick on my pant leg.

Several species of ticks are common in NH: blacklegged (formerly called deer tick), dog tick (sometimes called wood tick), and winter tick (the one causing moose a lot of grief). Of the three, it is the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) that is spreading Lyme disease and more recently two other diseases that can affect humans: babesiosis and anaplasmosis. So, even more reason to be extra careful in the woods and to do a full body check (including head) when you get home.

Yesterday I purposely went looking for more ticks, this time on deer. Dr. Alan Eaton, entomologist and tick expert at UNH is researching the distribution of blacklegged ticks in New Hampshire. Through the The Stewardship Network: New England (which I work for part-time) he's rallied a handful of volunteers throughout the state to help collect ticks off of deer brought into check stations by hunters.

To see how this was going, I drove west toward the Connecticut River to the deer check station at the Meridan Deli Mart in Plainfield. This country store has everything you need--groceries, snacks, lunch, gas, local news, and deer registration.

Dr. Eaton's map of blacklegged tick distribution in NH--
more towns added during this hunting season--
and tick and ked info sheet for hunters.

Hunters are required to register their deer at a check station. At the same time, NH Fish and Game biologists are there to gather data on the deer herd. They estimate the age of the deer (by looking at the teeth) and record its weight. A crowd usually forms to guess the weight before it is revealed. Often the hunters guess pretty well and then there are congratulations all around.

NHFG biologist Rob Calvert was gathering the data in Meriden. Ten deer were brought in before noon: 9 bucks and 1 doe. It was a little slower than Rob expected. He also thought there would be more does.

Rob Calvert estimates the age of the deer with a look at the amount
of dentine visible and wear on the molars.

Once Rob finished, volunteer Barbara Mcilroy from Hanover moved in to scan the neck and collect any ticks and keds (more on these later) in a small vial.

Volunteer Barbara Mcilroy from Hanover collects tick from harvested deer in western NH.

Alan Eaton was there too--he visits many check stations throughout the state to lend a hand and to chat with hunters about ticks. The hunters are eager to volunteer all the ticks from their deer, and usually about then they head into the Deli to get lunch. At the end of the season, Dr. Eaton will tally up the number of ticks from each town where deer were shot and the ticks will be sent to the Department of Public Health to analyze for Lyme disease.

Dr. Alan Eaton scans the deer neck for ticks (above),
while Barbara Mcilroy collects an engorged female deer tick.

And what about those keds. The deer ked is a blood-sucking fly that is native to Europe. It has been here awhile, but seems to be on the increase. They look a bit like a tick at first glance, but they move very quickly, although not quick enough to escape Alan's vials. For he is also studying the distribution of keds and deer are a handy source.

A ked
So, maybe this citizen science project is not for everyone--Barbara said she was having fun--but it's a neat collaboration among hunters, scientists, biologists, and volunteers who are not squeamish around ticks, especially ticks on dead deer. 

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