Robert Miller: Two new disease-carrying tick types arrive in Connecticut
Black-legged ticks we know — the disease-spreaders, the bearers of bad bacteria when they fasten on for a blood meal.
But two new arrivals — the Asian long-horned tick and the lone star tick — could make things worse in time. Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock.
Asian long-horned ticks are a non-native invasive species that turned up in New Jersey in 2017.
And a warming climate could be speeding the lone star tick north from its habitat in the southeastern US.
The staff of the Tickborne Disease Prevention Laboratory at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury found the first Asian long-horned tick in the state in 2018. This year, it found another in Danbury and a third in Westport.
“They’re longer and reddish,” said Neeta Connally, an associate professor of biology at Western who heads the lab. “They might be mistaken for a dog tick.”
The problem with Asian long-horned ticks is, first, that it is an invasive species. Like the emerald ash borer, the zebra mussel and Eurasian watermilfoil, invasives can run rampant when loosened on a new habitat.
“Invasive species are one of our major environmental issues, along with climate change and the loss of biodiversity,” said Rick Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY.
And, as always, they are interrelated. Invasives lessen biodiversity. If climate change fosters this, the process speeds up.
And the second problem with Asian long-horned ticks is this: The females don’t need to mate with a male to reproduce. In essence, they can clone themselves, and reproduce in massive numbers.
“One female can lay a thousand eggs,” said Kirby Stafford, an entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven. “All the females that hatch can lay 1,000 eggs.”
“They can reproduce very quickly,” said Western’s Connally.
Researchers first identified the Asian long-horned tick in the US on a sheep in New Jersey in 2017. It’s unclear whether it might have come it on other hosts to other places.
It’s now found in 11 other states, mostly in the eastern US. Unlike the black-legged tick, which likes brush and high grass, it’s been found living in lawns.
The good news, Connally said, is that it doesn’t seem terribly interested in humans.
What it does infest — in huge numbers — are other mammals, including fox, coyotes, opossums, pets and livestock. The ticks can literally suck the lifeblood out of these animals. In Australia and New Zealand, they’ve reduced production in dairy cattle by 25 percent.
“They don’t seem to like people that much,” said Stafford of the agricultural experiment station. “But they’ll be a huge veterinary issue.”
What’s yet to be determined, said Ostfeld of the Cary Institute, is whether they can transmit the pathogens black-legged ticks spread.
“We don’t know,” he said.
Lone star ticks — so named because of the prominent white spot on its back — aren’t exactly new on the scene. They’re the predominant tick in the southeast, spreading a different host of illnesses than the black-legged tick that gives us Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis and Powassan virus.
The lone star ticks, instead, spread ehrlichiosis. A Southern tick-associated rash illness, spotted fever rickettsiosis, tularemia and a red-meat allergy that, like its name says, can give people a lifelong allergic reaction to red meat.
The experiment station staff, along with its counterparts at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, found a thriving population of lone star ticks on Manresa Island in South Norwalk in 2017.
They now are found in New Jersey, on Staten Island and Long Island in New York, on Prudence Island in Rhode Island, on Cape Cod and north to Maine.
“We expect to see it farther north,” Stafford said.
The bad thing about the lone star ticks is that they are more aggressive than black-legged ticks. Black-legged ticks hang out on grass and plants, wait until something with blood passes by — a mouse, a deer, a human — and then hop on for a ride and a meal. Lone star ticks seek out their prey.
Because these ticks are here, and are not leaving, Connally of Western said that tick-bite prevention — doing a full-body tick check, showering after being outside, throwing your clothes in the dryer — is something people have to learn to do as matter of course
“You get a flu shot, you wear a seat belt, you floss your teeth,” she said. “We want them to think about this as well.”
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