ME researchers study tick population expansion

May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month, with most cases occurring during the summer months.

SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Scientific research can be dirty work.

This may be especially true when it comes to one of the most hated members of the animal kingdom: the tick.

Chuck Lubelczyk is a vector ecologist for the Maine Medical Center Research Institute. With a corduroy sheet, he and his team scour the woods of each county, looking for ticks to catch and bring back to the Scarborough institute.

In 2019, the CDC confirmed 1,629 cases of Lyme disease in Maine, the highest incidence rate in the country. Lubelczyk explained that ticks thrive when springs are mild and summers are wet. As Maine’s climate changes, institute researchers, including Dr. Rebecca Robich, have found that populations are expanding northward and biting later.

“Different regions have a higher percentage of infection rates the further north you go, and that’s likely because the deer tick is expanding north,” Robich said.

“We now have a longer tick season because of weather-related things,” Lubelczyk explained. “And, before, you didn’t usually think of December as a time when you had to worry about ticks, but, at least in southern Maine, you have for many years now.”

His environmentalist colleague, Dr. Susan Elias, also followed this expansion.

“With earlier snowmelt, you get bare ground,” she said. “And that’s helpful for ticks because they have to look for a blood meal.”

If this spring is dry, Lubelczyk said, it could be a slow year for ticks. If Maine receives a moderate to severe amount of rain, the quest for a blood meal could be stronger than ever.

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