Martha’s Vineyard hits peak time for tickborne illnesses

The majority of infections will occur over the next month, experts say.

Field biologist Richard Johnson, holding a tool for collecting ticks, will investigate suspected Lone Star tick sightings. — Photo by Michael Cummo

“The first week of June is gangbusters for ticks on the Vineyard,” Sam Telford, professor of infectious diseases at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and internationally known authority on ticks and tickborne diseases, told The Times on a visit to the Island last week. Mr. Telford began studying ticks on Martha’s Vineyard in 1994, and has been coming back regularly ever since.

Ticks are in the nymphal stage from April through the end of June. “They’re the ones we’re concerned about,” Mr. Telford said. “The vast majority of people are infected in June.”

Deer tick nymphs, the teenagers of the tick world, emerge en masse in the spring, hungry for the blood meal that will propel them to adulthood later in the summer. Approximately 30 percent of these nymphs have contracted Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, from the white-footed mice they cozied up with over the winter. Because they’re so small, roughly the size of a poppy seed, and because they excrete a natural anesthetic when they bite, deer tick nymphs are masters at avoiding detection and inflicting infection. By the time the nymphs reach adulthood in late summer, they will be responsible for about 90 percent of the Lyme disease contracted by humans.

Typical symptoms for Lyme disease include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans. The telltale “bull’s-eye rash” only shows up about 60 percent of the time. If left untreated, corkscrew Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria can drill itself into joints, the heart, and the nervous system.

Lyme disease is only one of the tickborne illnesses Islanders and visitors can contract from a tick bite. Babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, and tularemia also lurk. Mr. Telford said in a previous interview with The Times that the Vineyard is the national hotspot for tularemia, because of the microclimate on the southward-facing portion of the Island, which is influenced by salt spray. “For the Vineyard to account for a tenth of all cases nationally is pretty remarkable,” he said.

This year, there’s a buzz about a new bad guy in town — the Lone Star tick.

Lone Star rides into town
While it’s premature to say if the Lone Star tick has colonized on the Vineyard, anecdotally and on social media, many Islanders have reported finding them for the first time this year.

The Lone Star tick has been on Martha’s Vineyard in small numbers for some time, according to Mr. Telford. It’s had a mysterious presence. “I’ve seen them here as early as the late ’90s, and I found them in Nantucket in the late ’80s,” he said. “But they fizzle. Why is that? On Prudence Island in Narragansett Bay they’ve been around since the 1960s, and [people] have a horrible problem with them. But you don’t see them on Bristol or any of the nearby islands. It’s a huge mystery.”

Unlike deer ticks and dog ticks, the Lone Star tick is an aggressive predator. “They’re nasty; they have eyes, unlike deer ticks that are blind,” Mr. Telford said. “They can see you and come after you.”

The female Lone Star tick is often distinguished by the white “star” on its back; however, not all Lone Star ticks have the white spot. “All, however, are round and brown,” Mr. Telford said. “All move fast.”

Until recently, the Lone Star tick was primarily found south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But as the climate has warmed, the infectious insect has spread its range.

The Lone Star tick has now colonized on Cuttyhunk, Nashawena, and Prudence Island.

Mr.Telford said that he discovered the Lone Star tick infestation on Cuttyhunk five years ago. “People were raising the flag, saying there are no Lone Star ticks in Massachusetts, but then I went to Cuttyhunk to give a talk, and said, ‘We’ve got a problem here.’”

The Lone Star tick is a vector for Rocky Mountain spotted fever as well as tularemia, ehrlichiosis, and Masters’ disease. Rocky Mountain spotted fever symptoms include nausea, vomiting, high fever, chills, muscle aches, insomnia, and a red, non-itchy rash that usually appears on wrists and ankles, and spreads in both directions. According to the Columbia University Lyme and Tick Borne Disease research center, about 3 percent to 5 percent of patients who are infected with Rocky Mountain spotted fever will die from it. The telltale rash will show up in five to 10 days, but 10 to 15 percent of those infected never get the rash.

“It’s not just diseases you can get from Lone Star ticks; for some reason, some people develop an allergy to red meat,” Mr. Telford said, citing a recent connection made by a study at the University of Virginia Medical School.

Action imperative
Mr. Telford stressed preventive measures have to be taken immediately so Martha’s Vineyard doesn’t become rife with Lone Star ticks. “We think this should be nipped in the bud,” he said. “Let’s not talk about it, let’s not research it anymore, let’s just follow up on the reports, and go to the site and investigate. This is a way citizens can get involved to prevent the problem.”

Anyone finding a Lone Star tick should go to the Martha’s Vineyard Boards of Health website, or contact Richard Johnson, field biologist for the Martha’s Vineyard Tick-Borne Illness Prevention Program at, or by phone, 508-693-1893. “If it’s a homeowner, we’ll see if it’s OK to spray pesticide,” Mr. Telford said. “If it’s conservation land, we’ll find some way to get rid of them. If you get volunteers and drag the area day after day, you can get rid of them.”

Invasive flora bolster invasive fauna
According to recent studies, the likelihood that Lone Star ticks will colonize on Martha’s Vineyard increases with the spread of invasive plant species. Studies by BioOne, a nonprofit online aggregation of core research in environmental sciences; the Maine Medical Center Vector-Borne Disease Research Laboratory; and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; all state there is a strong correlation between the spread of non-native plant species and the spread of tickborne diseases. This is in large part because the deer and the white-footed mouse, key players in the birth cycle of tickborne diseases, find shelter and sustenance in these non-native plants.

“It is clear that dense Japanese barberry infestations provide highly favorable habitats for small mammals, deer, and tick development and survival,” the BioOne study states.

“The greater abundance of ticks in the parts of our study area dominated by exotic-invasive [plants] suggests greater risk for exposure to vector ticks compared with areas dominated by native [plants],” concludes the Maine Medical Center Disease Research Laboratory report.

According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Our results show a mechanistic link between an invasive shrub and human risk of exposure to tick-borne diseases through a cascade of ecological interactions. First and foremost, honeysuckle alters the habitat use of white-tailed deer, which in turn alters the abundance of Lone Star ticks and human risk of exposure to the bacterial pathogens that they vector.”

On Martha’s Vineyard, Japanese honeysuckle, Oriental bittersweet, Russian olive, and porcelain berry are some invasive species that aid and abet the tick population. Invasive-plant eradication benefits the Island ecosystem in myriad ways. It’s a difficult task that only becomes more difficult with delay.

“Unfortunately, invasive plants are, almost by definition, difficult to get rid of, and eradicating them by cutting or digging often requires persistence over many years,” Matt Pelikan, restoration ecologist with the Nature Conservancy, told The Times in an email. “As undesirable as the use of toxic chemicals is, careful and precise use of herbicide is sometimes the only feasible way to eliminate a population of an invasive plant, posing a difficult choice for a landowner.”

Mr. Telford suggests the facts about Lone Star ticks should clarify that choice. “The deer tick female lays 2,000 eggs. The Lone Star tick lays 6,000 eggs, so it doesn’t take long to build up a population,” he said. “Let’s do something about this while we can.”

For more information, go to the Martha’s Vineyard Boards of Health Tick Borne Illness Council website, Mr. Telford’s blog, “Telford Talks Ticks,” can be found at