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Research examines deer tick population

Friday, July 11, 2014

Researchers at Mercyhurst University have captured more than 200 deer ticks at Presque Isle this summer as part of a long-term scientific study intended to identify their prevalence and whereabouts at the state park, determine the percentage of them carrying Lyme disease and consider mitigation strategies. 

“Our sampling reveals the ticks at Presque Isle are really bad this summer,” said Michael Campbell, Ph.D. “You might have thought the cold winter would have had the opposite effect but, being underneath the snow, the ticks were well insulated from the extreme conditions.”

In addition to collecting samples and tracking areas where the tick population is most abundant, the Mercyhurst team will conduct DNA testing to find what percentage of the ticks carry Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that can cause significant health problems in humans if left untreated.

Taking the lead on the research project is assistant professor of biology Sara Turner, Ph.D., who obtained a one-year mini-grant from the Regional Science Consortium to support the DNA testing aspect of the study, which is currently taking place in Mercyhurst’s biology lab. Turner said she hopes to have preliminary results by early fall, although testing is expected to continue through March 2015.

Besides Campbell, Turner is collaborating with biology faculty Michael Elnitsky, Ph.D., Amy Burniston, M.S., and Sarah Bennett, M.Ed., along with biology students Tom Kelly, Trevor Surgener, Samantha DeSalle and Joan Witte. Public health faculty David Dausey, Ph.D., and Thomas Cook, Ph.D., as well as several of their students are also engaged in the initiative.

“I think it is important to warn people about the risks posed by deer ticks, but you need to have updated information to do that and to make your message relevant,” said Campbell, who indicated the Mercyhurst study would likely span several years.

“Eventually, we would like to expand this project to the Erie Bluffs, North East area and Asbury Woods, among other places,” Turner said. 

Meanwhile, the Mercyhurst team is sharing its data with The Presque Isle Advisory Committee’s recently created Tick Task Force, which includes members from the Regional Science Consortium, government agencies and local universities. In another collaboration, the Mercyhurst research team will engage a group of area high school students in the deer tick study the week of July 21-25. The students, participants in the Regional Science Consortium Enviro Research Camp, will gain intensive hands-on learning experiences at both Presque Isle and in Mercyhurst University laboratories.