Lone star ticks strengthen Vineyard foothold

Surveys show ‘spawn of Satan’ tick rampant in Aquinnah and Chappy.

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Map showing average 2018 lone star tick count. – Courtesy Martha's Vineyard Commission/Dick Johnson

Lone star ticks, relative newcomers to the Vineyard, have become entrenched, are multiplying, and are gaining territory on Island, Dukes County tick program biologist Dick Johnson recently told an audience at Polly Hill Arboretum.

Unlike the deer tick, all three lone star tick life stages are largely fueled by deer blood meals, as opposed to mice or other animals. Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket sport the most deer per square mile anywhere in the commonwealth, making for an abundant food source. Lone star ticks do not transmit Lyme, but can infect people with tularemia, human ehrlichiosis, and STARI (Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness). Bites from the tick can also trigger alpha-gal allergy, which causes people to become dangerously allergic to meats. Previously regarded as a Southern pest, the lone star became established on the Vineyard approximately half a decade ago, according to Tufts tick researcher Sam Telford.

Telford encountered small numbers of lone star ticks in the region going back 20 years, but “the big change has been in the past five years,” he said. Something happened that allowed them to overwinter and become ensconced, he said. Warming temperatures are partly to blame, he said, but it’s also possible the ticks have evolved to acclimatize in New England.

A major reason they’re so prolific, he said, is that unlike the deer tick, which lays 1,000 to 2,000 eggs at a time, the lone star tick lays 3,500 to 5,000 a pop. When the larvae hatch, they tend to stay concentrated in a small patch, he noted. “What if you’re unfortunate enough to step in 5,000 larvae?” he asked.

Barnstable County entomologist Larry Dapsis spoke to just that scenario. Recently a physician contacted him for advice on removing 182 teeny ticks from a woman’s leg, ticks too minute for tweezers, Dapsis said.

Dapsis learned the woman sat down in a West Falmouth larva patch, and as a result, “was borderline freaking out.” He advised the doctor to employ the best removal technique he knew — duct tape. After removal, the tick ordeal wasn’t over for the woman. The bites “itched the daylights out of her for about six weeks,” he said.

The larva bites can be so horrible, one Southern newspaper editor suggested the lone star tick was not the Lord’s creation but the Devil’s.

“I don’t know the evolutionary beginning of ticks, but I’m positive they’re not of God,” Ben Garrett, editor of the Independent Herald in Oneida, Tenn., wrote in an opinion piece. “I’m convinced that the first lone star tick crawled directly out of the pits of hell, because its offspring are literally the spawn of Satan.”

Garrett told The Times his neck of the woods is full of the ticks. “Man, we grow ’em good, ’cause they’re everywhere,” he said.

Johnson didn’t characterize the Vineyard as a sea of these ticks, but definitely said Aquinnah and Chappaquiddick are awash with them. Of the nine yards he and his team surveyed in Aquinnah this year, 100 percent had lone star ticks.

“The problem with the lone star ticks is they react to carbon dioxide — they come to you,” he said. “You can be working in your yard, and a lone star tick can come after you. It has rudimentary eyes and is very good at sensing carbon dioxide.”

Howard Ginsberg, a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey field station at the University of Rhode Island and a longtime tick researcher, said he uses dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) to lure lone star ticks for collection and study.

He supported Johnson’s assertion lone star ticks hunt their hosts, likening their predatory behavior to the African camel tick. “They are fairly aggressive,” he said.

But he also said the lone star tick can be passive like a deer tick, perching on foliage until a host passes to latch onto.

Telford said the misery of the growing lone star population might induce a strong deer reduction campaign on the Vineyard. But before the population swells to misery level, he said, it needed to be addressed. Framing it as a public health emergency, he advocated controlled burns in areas where the ticks are most numerous.

Johnson said Islanders should defend themselves with permethrin-treated clothing.