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Ticks, Lyme’s, and a Healthy Ecosystem - August 2, 2015

A growing fear for Americans, especially here on the Eastern Shore, is the increasing risk of contracting Lyme’s disease. Lyme’s disease is a bacterial infection that can easily, and unknowingly, be contracted through a black-legged tick bite, or more commonly known as a deer tick. Only ticks carrying the Lyme’s bacterium of Borrelia burgdorferi will give you the disease with early symptoms such as headache, fever, and fatigue. Typically there will also be a red bull’s eye mark around the bite, which is one of the easiest ways to identify that the individual has contracted lymes. While initially the symptoms for lymes disease may seem mild and easily mendable, if the disease goes untreated there is a high risk for it to spread to your heart, joints, and nervous system and cause a lifetime of trouble and pain.

    Scientific study and research has linked the increase in deer ticks and cases of Lyme’s to the fragmentation of forests. When we develop and build on areas that were once forest, there is a chance that we are taking sections out of a single large forest, leaving multiple smaller forests separated by roads, houses and other developments.  Specialist species such as large territorial predators are not able to live in these small segmented forests, therefore smaller generalist species like the white-footed mouse flourish in these ecosystems with no predators. 

    The white-footed mouse in particular is the “principal natural reservoir”, the species most closely associated with the disease, in these small habitats with their dense populations. The white-footed mouse is actually the primary host of the Lyme’s bacterium and the ticks are simply the vectors, or carriers. With more small mammals and no predators, vector insects such as the deer tick are able to multiply rapidly and generally their populations skyrocket. When a tick’s main food source is an infected mouse, there is an increase in the chance that the majority of the tick population will carry the Lyme’s bacterium. 

    Small mammals that carry the Lyme’s bacterium are more likely to carry other tick borne illnesses that can have similar symptoms or affect the Lyme’s symptoms so it is important to tell your doctor if you have been outdoors recently and suspect that you may have Lyme’s. If not your doctor may not see the signs of Lyme’s and rule it out. 

    The white-footed mouse has adapted to be able to live a normal life while hosting the Lyme’s bacterium and is largely unaffected by tick bites. Some studies actually show that the male mice live longer when they are bit more. 

    There are long-term and short-term methods of reducing the risk of Lyme’s through ticks, each with inherent risks and rewards. One long-term solution would be to reduce the fragmentation of forests, to reconnect already fragmented forests using land bridges or restoration techniques, increase biodiversity in these areas, and bring back more predators such as foxes and owls. Also increasing and encouraging smarter development rather than urban sprawl is not only good for forest fragmentation prevention but for society and our ecosystems as a whole. 

    Short term methods and solutions to decrease the risk of Lyme’s for people who want to continue enjoying themselves in the outdoors are rather easy. Daily application of insect and tick repellant is simple, quick and essential if you spend time in forests and fields. Also daily tick checks are highly recommended especially in the late spring and early summer when the ticks are most active. If you happen to find a tick on your person, a safe way to remove it is to firmly grasp the tick with tweezers and pull upward to ensure that you pull the mouth out of your skin. Once the tick is removed you should clean the bite with rubbing alcohol and dispose of the tick by flushing it down the toilet. 

    If you do have a tick bite, make a small circle with a pen or marker around it to remember where it is on your body and how large it is. If in the following days the bite becomes inflamed, red and white, looks likes a bullseye, infected or worse, visit a doctor as soon as possible. It is also important to check your pets for ticks on a regular basis, even if you apply insect and tick repellant.

    Ticks are not all bad news as they do have a purpose in the ecosystem. In a healthy biodiverse ecosystem, ticks are a food source to many wild animals such as the wild turkey and other birds. Most importantly the tick’s population reflects how healthy an ecosystem is. If the tick population is high then the ecosystem is probably out of balance with little biodiversity and an abundant of small rodents like the white-footed mouse with no predators. Ecosystems with a thriving predator population will have fewer ticks. 

    It is important to understand why cases of Lyme’s disease are increasing, how to prevent it, and why we should not eradicate the wildlife that carry the Lyme’s bacterium. While Lymes disease can be very problematic, we can help to reduce and prevent this disease by educating ourselves, our families and friends, and our communities. 

 

Joanna Trojanowski is the Education Intern for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 



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