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Tracking ticks: Experts say deer ticks are surviving Maine winters

Researchers also say that Lone Star ticks, which are common in the south, are surviving winters in Southern Maine. A bite can cause people to develop a red meat allergy, and in some cases a reaction to dairy products.

Scientists say ticks can now survive in environments where they would have frozen to death 30 years ago. They believe climate change and the bacteria they carry is helping extend their range.   Researchers are tracking the ticks to see how help protect the public and their pets from possible infections.

It's a bitter cold February day but that's just the way Chuck Lubelcyzk and Libby Henderson like it.

The vector ecologist and field biologist from Maine Medical Center's Research Institute want to know how deer ticks live through harsh Maine winters.  

The tiny parasites are in containers called 'tick traps' -- buried in the ground. Biologists clear snow and check to make sure the traps are intact.  The ticks are disease free and inside small bottles.  They are being monitored all winter in different types of conditions.   

Some bottles are under leaves -- others are exposed. So far data show the ticks -- which look like moving poppy seeds - can hibernate in leaf cover. 

The snow cover acts as a thick insulating layer and things under it survive and it actually protects it from a real killing frost or cold, said Chuck Lubelcyzk, a vector ecologist at the MMC Research Institute. .

 No snow cover and a sudden drastic drop in temperatures usually spells doom -- but even exposed ticks can survive at a rate as high as 40 percent. 

 Another concern -- ticks are on the move. Cases of Lyme have exploded from 71 in 2000 to 1,310 in 2018. Southern Maine is considered the epicenter for Lyme -- but cases are being reported in every county in Maine even in Aroostook County where deer ticks haven't been spotted yet. 

 'Where are the ticks heading? Where is their optimal range? Its very important for predicting the distribution of disease,' said Michelle Volk, University of Maine graduate student. 

Researchers in Southern Maine are sharing data with University of Maine graduate student Michelle Volk. Volk with is tracking tick migration in Northern and Downeast Maine.  

 Volk is monitoring tick traps in Orono, Cutler and Presque Isle. This summer she will collect ticks from sites throughout Northern and Western Maine and test them for Lyme disease and other tick borne illnesses. 

 The project will also look at deer migration, plant life and climate change. Research suggests ticks are sensitive to temperature and humidity.

  Maine experienced a dramatic drop off in cases of Lyme in 2018.  1,310 cases down from 1,852 the year before.  A dry summer may have played a role.

  Dr. Sean Birkel is an assistant research professor at the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute.  He says ticks are moving into into colder climates in Maine as warm months grow hotter and longer.

'We anticipate in the coming decade most of the state will become prime habitat for the deer tick.' said Birkel.   

A habitat that includes Jackman -- less an hour from the Canadian border. Researchers last fall discovered a pocket of deer ticks here for the first time, catching locals off guard.

 'If they are surviving a four foot snow pack and in 20 degrees zero like it is now that's a little disturbing,' said Caruso.

 Greg Caruso is master hunting guide and spends every day in the woods six months out of the year.  But he has yet to find a tick on himself. Recently he has spotted more ticks on moose.

 Caruso plans to make sure he and his family wear more protective clothing and bug spray.  He says his hunting parties - usually from southern New England always come prepared against ticks. 

 The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has a 'real-time;' Lyme disease tracking system


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