Field Fiasco Friday: The Ticking Tick Bomb

As a native to the mountains of New York, I considered frog catching a favorite childhood pastime. I remember spending hours at the local streambed catching frogs, confining them in jars, and studying their behavior. In retrospect, this may have been my first signs as a budding field biologist, along with a naivety to the pests and parasites associated with field work itself.

Many years later as a young and eager undergraduate, I began to seek out opportunities to get involved in local field work to help identify my research interests and gain experience. When an opening to help a graduate student search for and catch salamanders came along, I thought back to the amphibian-wrangling skills from my younger years and jumped at the opportunity.

As a volunteer assistant, my job was to walk transects at various locations throughout Long Island in search of salamanders. This helped the graduate student investigate a recent speciation of two salamander species in the Tri-State area region of New York.

An eastern red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus), one of the two species of study (Source)

All had been running smoothly until halfway through the field season when we approached the time of year all the assistants had been dreading: tick season. New York State has an abundance of ticks, and in the summer-time all of the newly hatched baby ticks enter the world, causing an influx of these tiny parasites. This is particularly concerning since the ticks in this area have a high prevalence of carrying Lyme disease, which is a serious and debilitating condition.

Adult male tick in comparison to a match-stick for scale. These dangerous parasites are tiny creatures that are not easy to see in dense vegetation. (Source)

Our best protection to avoid contact with these ticks was to wear full Tyvek suits over our field-gear. Although our getup was quite comprehensive in that it covered our entire bodies, as some of you may know, Tyvek is a high-density plastic that is not so breathable. As you can imagine, wearing these while conducting fieldwork for hours on end in the summer heat was less than enjoyable.

An example of the full Tyvek get-up (Source)

Alas, there we were on a Saturday morning walking transects in our full protective garb, on the search for salamanders. As I reached down to overturn a log obstructing our path, my attention turned to my sleeves which seemed to be moving ever so slightly. As I focused in on my Tyvek suit, I realized that the slight movement was not a figment of my imagination, but rather hundreds – or maybe even thousands- of miniscule baby ticks radiating across my suit in search of some skin to dig into. In that moment, I realized that I had detonated what we call a “tick bomb”. These are the nests of baby ticks that get released upon perturbation, which I had just induced by merely walking past.

In a moment of panic, I started sweeping them off with my gloved hands- but just as I would clear some away, more would come in to replace them. There seemed to be an endless stream of teeny black dots emanating from every direction. I called to the graduate student on the other side of the transect, who frantically ran up and fumbled through her field kit to find our high-tech tool for trapping ticks: duct-tape. We ripped pieces off in a feverish haze, and stuck them all over my body, where the ticks had now distributed. After what felt like an eternity of adhering tape to my suit, we had finally extracted them all. The nightmare had ended.

So as one concerned citizen to another, heed my warning:

The next time you’re hiking in upstate New York and come across some tall grass, beware of the ticks that may be lurking there. And in my opinion, avoid these habitats at all costs in seasons where you may drop the dreaded “tick bomb”.

Author: Josie Hubbard is a 1st year PhD student in Animal Behavior. She studies non-human primate social behavior. This field fiasco occurred during her undergraduate work at SUNY Stony Brook as a volunteer research assistant for the Ecology and Evolution department.


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