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Maine researchers study expanding tick population

May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month, with most cases coming in the summer months.

SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Scientific research can be dirty work.

That can be especially true when dealing with one of the most hated members of the animal kingdom: the tick.

Chuck Lubelczyk is a vector ecologist for the Maine Medical Center Research Institute. With a corduroy sheet, he and his team scour the woods in each county, looking for ticks to catch and bring back to the institute in Scarborough.

In 2019, the CDC confirmed 1629 cases of Lyme disease in Maine, the highest incidence rate in the nation. Lubelczyk explained ticks thrive when the spring is mild and the summer is humid. As Maine's climate changes, the institute's researchers, including Dr. Rebecca Robich, have found populations are expanding north and biting later.

"Different areas are coming up with a higher percentage of infection rates the further north that you go, and that’s probably due to the fact that the deer tick is expanding northward," Robich said.

"We have a longer tick season now because of climate-related stuff," Lubelczyk explained. "And, previously, you don’t generally think about December as being a time that you have to worry about ticks, but, at least in southern Maine, you do in a lot of years now."

Fellow ecologist Dr. Susan Elias has also been tracking this expansion.

"With earlier snowmelt, you get bare ground," she said. "And, this is helpful to ticks because they need to quest for a blood meal."

If this spring is dry, Lubelczyk said, it could be a slow year for ticks. If Maine gets an average or severe amount of rain, the quest for a blood meal could be stronger than ever.

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