Although the number of cases of Lyme disease has been decreasing since 2009, according to the CDC, nearly 30,000 Americans fell prey to the tick-born illness in 2012 alone1. Lyme disease is transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected blacklegged tick, causing symptoms such as fever, headaches, muscle aches, swelling joints, and the characteristic bulls-eye rash, erythema migrans; in severe cases, victims may experience arthritis, facial palsy and or cardiac arrest.
This summer, a group of student researchers is assisting Associate Professor of Biology William Pfitsch with an ecological examination of the relationship between honeysuckle and tick populations. Honeysuckle is an invasive species in Upstate New York, which may be contributing to a noted increase of the prevalence of blacklegged ticks in the region.
Blaire Frett ’16, a biology major, and Leonard Kilekwang ’16, a neuroscience major, are working together to study this correlation in several wildlife patches in the Kirkland Glen. Sam Mengual ’16, an environmental studies major, and Hannah Trautmann ’15, a biology major, are conducting an identical experiment and will continue their work in the fall as an independent study. Mengual and Trautmann will remove honeysuckle from their patches, in order to assess whether or not the number of ticks decreases.
Each group designated four 30m x 30m areas containing honeysuckle and two control areas without the plant, measuring the vegetation of the patches and soil moisture, identifying the tree species, and recording temperature in six 5m x 5m plots within the larger patches. They also used graphite track plates to determine the presence of rodents, and subsequently checked for ticks.
“For about a week Hannah and I walked through our forest study area in Tyvek suits dragging a 1m x 1m canvas cloth behind us,” Mengual remarked. “Every 30 seconds we stopped to check for ticks and overall we collected about 30” Although there is no guarantee that each tick is host to the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes Lyme disease, the abundance of ticks suggests that Lyme disease is a threat in the area.
The students are building off previous senior theses, attempting to address other factors that may be contributing to a rise in tick populations but are not honeysuckle dependant. “We’ve noticed a definite correlation,” Frett stated, “but that does not necessarily mean it’s the cause.” Frett noted that moist soil, heavy vegetative density, thick leaf litter, and warm temperatures combine to create the perfect microenvironment for ticks.
None of the students were bitten while in the field, but that doesn’t mean their work won’t have a lasting influence. “This project has made me rethink what I want to do after graduation,” Frett noted, “although I thought I wanted to do lab work, being in the Glen everyday has made me seriously consider working in the field.” Their research has also reinforced Mengual’s interest in ecology, an important component of environmental science, and the topic of her upcoming study abroad trip to Ecuador. Trautmann and Kilekwang are happy to gain hands-on research experience, and look forward to applying the skills they’ve learned in future research.
1Information reflects the last published data from the Center for Disease Control. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/lyme/stats/chartstables/casesbyyear.html
Blaire Frett is a graduate of Evanston Township High School, Ill.
Leonard Kilekwang is a graduate of the Nairobi School, Kenya.
Sam Mengual is a graduate of the William H. Hall High School, West Hartford, Conn.
Hannah Trautmann is a graduate of Lyme-Old Lyme High School, Conn.