Researchers identify new tick species Alaska

by Chynna Lockett  |   

2 researchers holding white sheets in woods
Researchers from the Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies conduct tick drags in Alaska. They pull white sheets attached to sticks through wooded areas to catch ticks on the fabric.

If you were out enjoying a hike on a warm day and happened to encounter individuals dragging large white fabric squares through the grass, you’ve likely witnessed a tick drag. In recent years, UAA’s very own research team headed by Micah Hahn, Associate Professor of Environmental Health in the Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies have been conducting drags in local areas.

“You just walk through the woods and you pull the fabric behind you. Every 10 meters you stop, and you look at your fabric to see if you've collected any ticks,” explained Hahn.

2 researchers holding white sheets in woodsThese drags are part of an ongoing effort to research Alaska’s changing tick population. Historically, ticks haven’t been a health concern in the state, and there’s no evidence that the six species native to Alaska carry pathogens that harm people or animals. But factors like climate change and increased travel have created a more hospitable environment for ticks.

In recent years, nine non-native tick species have been found in Alaska. Some of these ticks are able to transmit pathogens that cause illnesses like Lyme disease. Because Alaska is vast and undeveloped, Hahn’s small team can’t cover enough land with tick drags to collect accurate data. So they partnered with the Alaska Office of the State Veterinarian and the Alaska Department Fish and Game to create the Alaska Submit-A-Tick program.

“People are always sending ticks to us,” said Hahn. “Anyone in the state who finds one on themselves, their animals, their personal luggage, or on wildlife can pull it off, put it in a vial and ship it to our state vet.”

When the team receives a tick, an entomologist identifies the species and enters it into a database to track the population. This method allows researchers to collect ticks from larger sample areas than they would otherwise be able to survey themselves. Hahn recently published a report for the state highlighting their findings from 2010-2022.

The evidence shows ticks are still a low level public health problem for Alaska, despite the changing population. Monitoring the population helps catch health hazards early and prevent illnesses from spreading. Hahn suggests brushing up on prevention techniques before traveling to help prevent ticks from hitching a ride to Alaska from the lower 48.

“If you find a tick don’t freak out,” Hanh said with a laugh. “If you go hiking, do a tick check that evening and pull a tick off, you're probably fine. They probably didn't have enough time to transmit the bacteria. If you're concerned, save your tick and watch for symptoms of tick-borne diseases.”

Hahn says following these steps and sharing the tick and your travel history can help doctors quickly diagnose health problems. Learn how you can get involved though the Submit-A-Tick Program


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