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Presque Isle goes under Mercyhurst microscope

Friday, June 5, 2015

Biology students collect tick specimens at Presque Isle.

Biologists at Mercyhurst University are engaged in two new research projects at Presque Isle State Park that could affect future decisions by park management. Both projects are funded by grants from the Regional Science Consortium.

This summer, a faculty-student research team from the Mercyhurst Biology Department is testing the efficacy of permethrin, a synthetic chemical pesticide that was applied for the first time in certain areas of Presque Isle last summer to control tick populations. Deer ticks pose a health concern because they can transmit bacteria responsible for Lyme disease when they feed on animal hosts and then feed on humans.

Biology lecturer Sarah Bennett and students Zarah Pratz and Samantha Horodyski are live-trapping small mammals at Presque Isle to compare the tick infestation of those mammals inhabiting locations where the pesticide was introduced to those in untreated areas. “We are setting live traps in habitats in the evenings, baited with peanut butter and oatmeal, and returning in the morning to see what we caught,” Bennett explained. “If a small mammal is caught, we carefully remove it, determine its species, measure it, weigh it, ascertain whether it has ticks and, if so, how many. We then release the mammal back where it was captured.”

The goal, she said, is to assess whether the pesticide application is effective in controlling ticks. Previous studies on the efficacy of permethrin treatment have yielded mixed results.

She said it may be that efficacy depends upon conditions at specific locations so it is important to determine whether or not it has been effective at Presque Isle in order to inform future management decisions.

Sara Turner, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, and Mercyhurst students Tom Kelly, Robert Wood, and Sierra Seath introduced permethrin to small mammals at Presque Isle for the first time last summer and again this past May.

Turner is heading a long-term scientific study overlapping with Bennett’s work through which researchers collect ticks from Presque Isle and test for a variety of zoonotic diseases, including Lyme disease. The end-game, she said, is to identify effective mitigation strategies intended to help protect the estimated four million local residents and tourists who visit the park each year. 

In the fall, meanwhile, Bennett and a team of biology students will study the impact of Phragmites australis, a large invasive perennial grass found in wetlands, on small mammal diversity at Presque Isle.

Current efforts to control Phragmites at the park are aimed at improving habitats for wildlife, especially nesting birds and native plant species. However, a past study revealed that a higher diversity of small mammals existed in locations dominated by Phragmites. 

“Since Presque Isle State Park has been named an ‘Important Mammal Area’ by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, it is important to  conduct a thorough assessment of small mammal diversity in habitats throughout the park to determine whether or not Phragmites represents an important habitat for small mammals,” Bennett said.

This study, as well as Mercyhurst biology instructor Amy Burniston’s study examining coyote and fox populations, is expected to be part of long-term mammal population monitoring aimed at identifying trends and connections between mammal population densities throughout the park.