Ticked off! Regional rise in tick activity spurs precaution, research

Recent studies indicate that the insect’s seasonal pervasiveness and geographic dispersion are both increasing.

by Taylor Haber | 5/31/22 5:05am

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by Naina Bhalla / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Tick prevalence and tick-borne diseases are becoming a growing concern in New Hampshire,  according to New Hampshire Health and Human Services researcher Marco Notarangelo. Recent analyses by the New Hampshire HHS also indicate that ticks have been “expanding in distribution” throughout the state and in other parts of New England.

In an emailed statement, Notarangelo wrote that HHS is taking particular interest in the northward expansion of the black-legged tick, colloquially known as the deer tick. Notarangelo said that the subspecies is noted for spreading several bacterial diseases and infections, including Lyme disease.

“Our concerns, are of course that with the northward expansion of the tick, we’ll also observe an expansion of the vectored pathogens,” he wrote.

In New Hampshire’s most recent statewide analysis, researchers observed more than 60% of deer ticks in Grafton County to be carriers of Lyme disease. Notarangelo said that there are plans to conduct another survey some time this year. 

Willow Nilsen, associate director of outdoor programs at the College, said that growing tick prevalence is probably the result of climate change. A lifelong New Hampshire resident, Nilsen added that as she has gotten older, she has noticed a steady rise in tick activity.

“There were not ticks; I did not see them until I was 19,” Nilsen said. “I moved to the Seacoast when I was 19, and the Seacoast is a little bit warmer than here. And, that’s the first time I saw them.”

Notarangelo said that “[t]here are a wealth of biotic and abiotic factors” that may be contributing to regional tick expansion, adding that two recent studies — both of which claim climate change to be a central cause of the trend — are “wonderful reviews” of the subject.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Notarangelo also wrote that peoples’ desire to get outside may have caused increased interactions with ticks.

“There is an expectation that human-tick encounters are increasingly more common within areas that are novelly colonized [and] invaded by ticks,” he wrote. “A part of the perceived increase in tick populations within recent years is however attributed to individuals' behavioral changes during and following the pandemic."

A former climate science educator, Nilsen said seasonal changes and a warming environment play the most outsized roles in her experiences with ticks.

“Ticks have a life cycle in what they do, and… they emerge in the spring, and they need to do their thing and mate and have babies like everything else,” she said. “And that’s when they do it.”

Ginger Link ’24, a Cabin and Trail leader for the Dartmouth Outing Club, said she removed three non-threatening ticks off herself just last week and that the practice is common for other DOC members.

“People definitely get [ticks],” Link said. “I think as long as people know how to deal with ticks, or as long as it’s a tick that’s not something that needs to be worried about, people don’t really talk about it.”

Link said that while she is not aware of any formal Cabin and Trail tick protocol, most members are well-versed in removal techniques. Leaders remind hikers to conduct tick checks after an activity and, if disease is a possibility, to save the ticks in a plastic bag for testing.

“I think most leaders know how to deal with ticks because they’ve gone on enough hikes … and trips and heard other people talk about it,” Link said.

Nathaniel Alden ’23, a Cabin and Trail leader-in-training, said that tick checks are “universally emphasized” for DOC participants in the summer, when the insect is more active. 

Growing up an avid nature lover, Alden also said that his past experiences with ticks helped him to feel comfortable during DOC activities.

“I feel like I saw them when I was relatively young, so I wasn’t as scared,” he said. “But they’re definitely appalling if you’ve never seen a tick, and you have this blood-sucking creature on you.”

Nilsen said she thinks of ticks as similar to mosquitoes, in the sense that both insects are common in warmer months and sometimes carry disease. Nilsen explained that with ample precaution, tick run-ins  are all too common to keep nature-lovers from the outdoors.

“If you’re walking through grass or in the forest, this time of year in particular, there is a possibility you will get ticks,” she said. “But, you know, that’s just a fact of life.”

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