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The New West: Student learns how little critters have big impacts

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A New England moose covered in fully-engorged winter ticks. PHOTO COURTESY OF YODER LAB

By Todd Wilkinson EBS ENVIRONMENTAL COLUMNIST

Cameron Dobrotka is 1,500 miles away from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem this summer, but he’s at work on something that has implications for our region, and he believes it should be of interest to members of his generation.

Why? Because it’s certain to become more prominent as an issue in the decades ahead.

Dobrotka is studying certain kinds of uncharismatic microfauna that may cause many readers here to squirm. After reading this column, you might even feel as if one of his subjects is crawling across your body. Warning: The description and photo that follows may be unsettling.

Young Mr. Dobrotka’s focus: ticks.

At the Yoder Lab on the campus of Wittenberg College in Springfield, Ohio, Dobrotka is thinking about tick behavior. He’s pondering how the proliferation of these blood-sucking, disease-spreading parasites is occurring in an age of climate change.

The 21-year-old grew up in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst and he admits that neither he nor his friends paid much heed to the topic of ticks. That changed when Dobrotka, as an undergraduate hoping to pursue a career in medicine, became a research associate in the laboratory operated by college professor and tick researcher Jay Yoder.

Yoder, these days, is focusing his attention on a particular species of tick, Dermacentor albipictus, known by its more common name, “winter tick.”

Winter ticks have emerged as a serious problem for moose in New England and there is growing concern that habitat conditions favoring tick survival in the boreal forest could dramatically affect moose as well as other deer family species, including potentially, elk, deer and woodland caribou.

Ticks are members of the class Arachnida, the same one that includes spiders.

Normally, major tick outbreaks occur in more southern climes and, in the North, only cyclically; normally, they are hard pressed to survive cold northern winters. But warming average temperatures have enabled more to persevere; they become hitchhikers on moose in autumn, start sucking blood, even reproducing on the animals, and stay there till spring. And by then the damage is done.

Although winter ticks cause adult hosts to lose their fur and can make them anemic, giving rise to the name “ghost moose,” they don’t usually kill. They can have a swift lethal effect on moose calves.

According to research professor Pete Pekins at the University of New Hampshire, who has been involved with an ongoing study in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, some winters since 2014 have had 60 percent calf moose loss due to winter ticks. Note: New England does not have wolves.

On some calf moose there were between 70,000 and 100,000 ticks per animal, sometimes many more. A baby moose will get sucked completely dry and die into two weeks.

“We see moose as the icon of gauging the impacts of climate change in the Northeast,” Pekins said. “Are we going to lose all of our moose? The bigger issue is climate change and what’s happening with moose and ticks is an indicator of what’s coming.”

Apart from the physiological impacts of winter ticks, there are deer ticks and other species that carry and spread epizootic diseases, the best-known being Lyme disease and, in our region, Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

The Yoder Lab is novel in that it has enabled dozens of undergraduates to do meaningful research with a climate-change issue that isn’t just emerging; it’s already happening. Professor Yoder says there are four tick species in Ohio that weren’t common when he was a kid.

For Dobrotka, who plays on the lacrosse team when he’s not putting ticks and their saliva under a microscope, climate change represented a serious yet nearly invisible, amorphous phenomena before he got involved in scientific investigation. He now realizes that the spread of exotic parasites and pathogens will be something that members of his generation will have to contend with.

What he appreciates about ticks is that although they are small, their presence can ripple big ecological impacts, even taking down the largest members of the deer family and potentially affecting moose at the population level due to calf mortality.

Dobrotka’s advice to his contemporaries in GenZ: Be prepared, not scared of nature, because danger is relative. Wear long clothes when going into bushy areas; use bug repellents like DEET; check your body—and your dogs— after a hike; if a tick is embedded in you, know how to remove it and save it in a baggie; if you find a tick that is engorged with your blood, or see a bull’s eye rash on the skin, go to a doctor immediately. Lyme and some of the other maladies can be thwarted if treated early with antibiotics.

“Ticks are out there in the world. My view and opinion about ticks has completely changed. They are all over the place and you never know what kind of tick you’ll run into,” Dobrotka said. “I’m not worried about them but they’ve made me think how I need to be aware if I’m out in the woods.”

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based “Mountain Journal” and is a correspondent for “National Geographic.” He’s also the author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399, which is available at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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