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Tick Hunting: The Prey Are Tiny, and the Bait Is Human

FAYETTEVILLE, N.Y. — Before he goes out to hunt, Brian Leydet pulls on his hiking boots and his all-white jumpsuit, fetches a homemade flannel flag out of his car and then, most importantly, duct-tapes his socks to his pant legs.

Then he heads into the undergrowth, dragging his flag around like a morose matador.

He has no lure, but needs none: Mr. Leydet’s quarry is quick to attach to the white flannel, using its tiny hooks on their legs to grab hold as it seeks its own prey — a warm-blooded host on which to feed.

“I am literally the bait,” he said.

He found a female black-legged tick almost immediately. Mr. Leydet allowed it to crawl across his hand, with a sense of appreciation for his prey.

“They are the neatest little creatures,” Mr. Leydet, an assistant professor of epidemiology and disease ecology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, N.Y., said. “I could do this all day.”

Mr. Leydet is a tick hunter, and his targets are the creepy, eight-legged arachnids that have fast become one of summer’s biggest bummers. Aided by climate change and other environmental factors, ticks have in recent years steadily expanded their turf in New York and nationally, including in the Northeast, which has long been a hot zone.

And more ticks mean more cases of tick-borne illnesses. Though the gathering of ticks and data about them has been hampered by the pandemic, experts say that a dozen or more distinct species have now been found in New York. Those include newcomers like the Asian long-horned tick, an interloper which has a nifty reproductive trick — parthenogenesis, whereby females can reproduce without mating with males — and the horrifying habit of attacking en masse, sometimes bleeding cattle to death.

Clinicians and researchers are also warily watching an expanding caseload for two tick-related conditions — anaplasmosis and babesiosis — including in northern and central New York, where such diseases were once almost unknown. Antibiotics and other drugs are effective in most cases, if caught early enough. But both can cause serious illness, even death.

“It’s a weird hobby,” said Mr. Leydet, who finds dozens of ticks during his excusions.Credit…Kate Warren for The New York Times

Researchers have also found more ticks carrying a bacteria, borrelia miyamotoi, which can cause a disease which resembles tick-borne relapsing fever, linked to backwoods, parasite-infested cabins.

Also on the rise, though still exceedingly rare, is the fearsome Powassan virus, which can cause encephalitis, meningitis and other serious conditions; with no vaccine or treatment, roughly 10 percent of patients who become symptomatic die. In April, a Maine resident died of Powassan, one of a handful of such deaths nationwide over the last decade; Connecticut also recently reported the death of a woman in her 90s who was admitted to the hospital in early May with “fever, altered mental status, headache, chills, rigors, chest pain and nausea” and died about two weeks later.

All of which has made the work of tick hunters like Mr. Leydet more urgent, with teams of state officials, scientists and volunteers heading out to locations where ticks thrive: meadows and high grass, the edges of forests and trails, and even some parts of suburbia.

They aren’t hard to find: Mr. Leydet says he might find dozens on an hourlong sweep near his home and workplace, ranging from tiny larvae to pea-sized adults.

“They’re literally crawling in everybody’s back yard,” said Mr. Leydet, noting that once ticks establish in an area, they are “almost impossible to get rid of.”

Sunny, dry days are best for hunts; a lack of wind is also a plus. Mr. Leydet’s process — known as “dragging and flagging” — is the same as many of his peers: pulling his white flag behind him, through mile after mile of tick-infested territory, though he says he has his preferred spots, which he calls “honey holes,” where he knows ticks can be found.

“It’s a weird hobby,” he said.

On a recent safari, Mr. Leydet chose a ragged bit of forest in suburban Fayetteville, N.Y., east of Syracuse, to search and capture, using two plastic vials, one for each sex. (Females and males have to be separated to prevent mating, and death-by-mating, as males typically die after such frolics.)

About a third of mature ticks carry some sort of disease, or more in some areas. The most famous and common disease remains Lyme disease, which was first identified in Connecticut in the 1970s.

Climate change and other factors have brought new species of disease-carrying ticks to New York.Credit…Kate Warren for The New York Times

Lesser-known ailments have also continued to spread north and west across New York into colder and more elevated terrain.

Lee Ann Sporn, a professor of biology at Paul Smith’s College, located in Adirondack Park, says that the tick population has boomed in the mountains, with the ticks being found in new areas and higher altitudes.

Dr. Sporn, who works with the State Department of Health on collection efforts, said that before 2014, surveillance efforts found “very sparse” populations in the park, but that since then “the densities have increased so dramatically.”

That includes in her backyard, where her son recently had three ticks found on him. “It really freaked me out,” she said.

Such trends are borne out by data collected by Dr. Saravanan Thangamani, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, who runs a statewide tick surveillance program, which invites citizens to send in dead ticks for analysis (though he said many that he receives are still alive).

Dr. Thangamani, who has been studying ticks for more than 20 years, says he remains astounded by the tick’s ability to evade a mammal’s immune system. “It’s such a small organism, but its amazing how many diseases it transmits,” he said. “I’m awed by the complexity.”

His website — nyticks.org — shows that no county in New York is spared from ticks, even New York City, where they have been found in every borough, including in Staten Island where newcomers like the Gulf Coast tick — a southern discomfort which is known to carry a form of spotted fever — have been sighted.

Experts also have seen more of the Lone Star tick, an aggressive biter whose telltale feature is a single-dot on the back of its females. It has been linked to pathogens like Bourbon virus and heartland virus, neither of which are as pleasant as their names imply.

Tracking the “northward expansion” is also part of the focus of a so-called “tick blitz” which started on Monday, focusing on counties from Long Island to Central New York, and sponsored by the Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases, a multistate network of scientists and public health experts.

State health officials say that the increase in ticks means that residents need to be particularly attuned to safety measures, including wearing light-colored clothing when in the forested or rural areas; using tick repellent; and doing frequent tick checks, even before coming home, as Powassan can be transmitted as fast as 15 minutes after the tick bite.

That’s not a reason for panic, said Bryon Backenson, the director of the state health department’s Bureau of Communicable Disease Control, but a good reminder to be careful, particularly if you’re a city dweller, and unfamiliar with woodland critters.

Ironically, that scenario became more common during Covid, as residents were urged to do outside activities in the face of indoor closings.

“Everyone was telling people that outside is safe,” said Mr. Backenson. “A lot of seasoned hikers knew about ticks because we’ve been beating them over the head with tick-borne disease messaging. But there were a lot of people who had never set foot in the woods.”

For researchers, March to October is prime tick-hunting season. In places where Mr. Leydet usually hunts, nymphal ticks emerge in late spring and begin to feed, something that experts refer to, vampirically, as a “blood meal.”

Deer and dogs are magnets for such noshing, as are mice and other small mammals, which often act as the reservoirs for the pathogens, which the ticks then spread to humans.

After they finish with a tasty host, the adults do what they do well: breed, often laying thousands of eggs, nests which can be exceedingly unpleasant for animals that stumble on them. Maine officials, for instance, have been sounding the alarm about so-called “winter ticks” which have been attacking baby moose.

In 2017, the discovery of the long-horned tick — an invasive species from East Asia — came after a New Jersey sheep named Hannah was discovered to have hundreds of the little bugs on her.

For doctors in upstate areas, the lack of awareness of some of the newer illnesses may be hindering some diagnoses, said Kristopher Paolino, an infectious disease clinician at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse, noting that the symptoms of anaplasmosis — including fever, nausea, and muscle aches — mirror some of those of Lyme disease.

One difference, however, is that bites from ticks infected with Lyme usually result in a telltale rash, often shaped like a bull’s-eye; bites from ticks infected with anaplasmosis do not.

“A lot of people aren’t thinking about this,” said Mr. Paolino, who notes that the disease can be mistaken for a “summer flu” or even Covid.

Researchers like Richard Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., say that climate change is also likely making tick life easier, shortening the harsh Northeastern winters.

“They are wimpy little creatures: They don’t crawl very far or very fast, they don’t fly, they don’t hop,” he said. “And if we make springs earlier, and winters later, then we’re giving them the gift of time.”

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