A needle in a haystack: UAA researchers are on the hunt for ticks in Alaska
Summer in the Land of the Midnight Sun means Alaskans are hitting trails in full force with family, friends and their canine companions. However, the great outdoors comes with its own risks and happy hikers know to be prepared for whatever may be lurking in the woods, like bears or moose. But what about bugs? And we’re not talking about the mosquito kind. Turns out there’s something far worse than mosquito bites — and that’s being bitten by a tick.
As summers in the state have trended warmer over the last decade or so, the number of tick sightings in Alaska have started to increase. Although the Last Frontier has its own hearty tick populations native to the state, the concern in recent years is that nonnative species found in the Lower 48 may start migrating north.
North Slope biologists make room for the loons
Loons are a boon for bioresearch. Much like the canary in the coal mine, the health of these top aquatic predators can translate to an entire ecosystem.
“If there are changes in the environment, from way down to fish and plankton, it will bio-accumulate to a loon,” explained Hannah Uher-Koch, a graduate student in biological sciences at University of Alaska Anchorage. That makes these migratory birds — like the yellow-billed loon, which frequently flirts with inclusion on the endangered species list — a valuable research subject in a changing landscape.
Loons are study-worthy subjects because they’re highly specialized birds, and thus more prone to disturbance. With feet far back on the body, loons are anatomically built for swimming and diving. A minor disturbance can jolt a loon into the relative safety of the water, leaving eggs on the shoreline vulnerable to predators. A series of major disturbances — like the abrupt introduction of a round-the-clock oil pad — could force enough loons from nests to affect an entire generation. Industry and wildlife can coexist, though. Habituated loons now nest near the oilfields of Kuparuk and Alpine. That just makes the sustainable and managed introduction of industry even more important in the NPRA.
Counting sheep in the Chugach Mountains
A biology student at University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), Metherell spent most of his summer deep in Chugach State Park, observing and recording Dall sheep behavior for days at a time. He spent so much time with sheep that, by August, he could identify individual personalities among the herd.
“[It’s been] an amazing opportunity as an undergraduate student,” he said
So far, the team knows the number of Dall sheep are shrinking in Chugach State Park. The population has halved in the past few decades. Lohuis determined nothing abnormal was killing the sheep; there were just fewer being born. Dial, meanwhile, determined that warming temperatures and longer growing seasons allowed vegetation like alders and willows to creep up the mountainside, cutting off the alpine tundra that Dall sheep love to snack on.
(Photo: Courtesy of Luke Metherell/Alaska Department of Fish and Game)