A new research project will test ticks found in Alaska to see if the tiny, blood-sucking arachnids carry the pathogens that cause Lyme disease, tularemia or other illnesses.
Wildlife biologists and the state veterinarian have for years asked the public to send in ticks to help identify what species live in Alaska, but this is the first time researchers will go out looking for ticks in parks and examine whether those ticks carry diseases.
The team, which includes biologists, veterinarians and researchers from the University of Alaska, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Office of the State Veterinarian, said it needs to know what tick-borne diseases exist in the state now so it can measure future changes.
"As the climate changes and ticks are moving north, we need a baseline," said Kimberlee Beckmen, a wildlife veterinarian with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.
"It's important to have the baseline so we can monitor things before they become a problem," said Micah Hahn, an assistant professor of environmental health at the University of Alaska Anchorage and the lead on the new research project.
Here's some of what's known now about ticks in Alaska:
First of all, Alaska has ticks, said state veterinarian Bob Gerlach.
"There's still the urban myth that we don't have fleas up here, we don't have ticks up here, but no, actually we do," said Sean McPeck, a veterinarian in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and president of The Alaska State Veterinary Medical Association.
Ticks that infest red squirrels, snowshoe hares and some birds have long been found in parts of Alaska, according to an article published in the Anchorage Daily News in 2016.
Then, during a study of ticks collected in Alaska between 2010 and 2016, a team of biologists and veterinarians, including Gerlach and Beckmen, identified five non-native species in Alaska, including the Lone Star tick and the American dog tick. Some of the ticks hitchhiked to Alaska on animals and humans who had recently traveled out of state. But others had not.
Since the study, at least two additional non-native tick species have been found in Alaska, Gerlach said. Now that researchers know non-native ticks are here, he said, the next step is determining the health risks they pose to people, pets and wildlife.
"Right now we don't know if we've got a problem up here," he said.
Non-native ticks arrive in Alaska regularly on animals and people who have traveled from the Lower 48, Beckmen said. One of those non-native species, the American dog tick, has become established in Alaska, she said.
"It's already been introduced into the wild, and able to reproduce in the wild and is living here happily," she said.
The American dog tick can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a bacterial disease that can be deadly if not treated early and with the right medicine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There have been no reports of people contracting Rocky Mountain spotted fever in Alaska, said Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. The same goes for Lyme disease, she said.
While the state health department reported that 10 Alaskans were diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2017, they had contracted the disease out of state, Castrodale said.
Last year, the state recorded three cases of tularemia, a bacterial infection that humans can pick up in several ways, including from a tick bite or through direct contact with an infected animal. Symptoms can vary depending on how the bacteria entered the body, but the infection always comes with a fever, according to the CDC. Most infections can be treated with antibiotics, though without treatment tularemia can lead to hospitalization and even death.
People most often get tularemia in Alaska by touching infected hares, including when they remove dead animals from their pet's mouth, Castrodale said.
This summer, Beckmen said, she identified multiple hares and two dogs with tularemia in the Fairbanks area. Last year, two pet cats died from the infection in Fairbanks, according to an article this month in Alaska Fish and Wildlife News, Fish and Game's online magazine.
In October 2016, a dog got Lyme disease from a tick bite on the Kenai, Beckmen said.
People have found ticks across Alaska, most often in Anchorage, Eagle River, Fairbanks, North Pole, Bethel and Valdez, according to the Alaska Fish and Wildlife News article.
It's unknown how many ticks live in Alaska. There hasn't been a proactive surveillance program before, Beckmen said.
However, both Beckmen and Gerlach said they have gotten more calls in recent years from Alaskans about ticks, as well as more ticks sent to their offices.
Gerlach received 50 ticks last year that were plucked from pets and humans in Alaska, compared to 17 in 2016 and 15 the year before. On Wednesday morning, he said, he sent 10 ticks in for testing. By the afternoon, he already had two more ticks delivered to his office.
"I can't keep up with the processing of them," he said.
Just over the last week or so, Beckmen said, three people contacted her with tick reports.
"It's not statistically proven, but in my experience, I shouldn't be getting three tick reports in one week," Beckmen said.
Beckmen and Gerlach said they don't know for sure whether the increase in reports of ticks is because more people know about ticks and know the state wants their ticks or whether there are actually more ticks in Alaska.
Gerlach said his office is concerned about reports that dogs have gone into the woods in Alaska and come back with ticks.
"We've had dogs that have never left the state that have just gone hiking through the woods with their owners and come back with ticks on them," Gerlach said. "So that's our big concern."
In May, UAA acquired a $125,000, one-year grant to study ticks in Alaska. The research will be done in collaboration with Fish and Game and the Office of the State Veterinarian, Hahn said.
Next summer, the team will search for ticks at parks in Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula, she said.
Hahn said a Fairbanks professor will examine the ticks collected by researchers, as well as those sent in by veterinarians, biologists and the public. She will look at the ticks' DNA to determine what diseases they might carry. Meanwhile, an Anchorage professor will work on establishing a habitat model for ticks in Alaska to answer the question: If ticks come to the state, where could they establish?
"Because there's so little information, it's just like: Let's just see what's out there and see if we're finding anything at all," Hahn said.
She hopes to continue the research after the one-year grant expires.
The research team will also launch a website in the spring with information about what Alaskans should do if they find a tick. In the meantime, she said, people can submit ticks found in Alaska using a more general form on Fish and Game's web page for Parasites and Diseases, noting where and on what the tick was found.
People can send ticks found on pets or humans to the Office of the State Veterinarian in Anchorage or, if found on wildlife, to Fish and Game.
Gerlach said he wants Alaska pet and livestock owners to be aware that there are ticks in the state and to check their animals. He recommends Alaskans work with their local veterinarian to determine whether they should use tick preventative treatments on their pets.