Get your phones ready to take some tick pics.
A Bishop’s University research project that provides quick, expert online tick species identification and real-time monitoring and mapping of ticks has just launched in Nova Scotia.
The e-Tick citizen science tick monitoring program already operates in Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick. This month, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Saskatchewan were added to the list of participating provinces.
“Nova Scotia is a special case. We worked very hard to make sure that Nova Scotia would be part of this 2020 addition because, well, you guys have a lot of ticks, you have a lot of Lyme disease,” Bishop’s University entomologist and biology professor Jade Savage said in an interview.
“You are, I’d say, the province where e-Tick is probably the most relevant, so I worked twice as hard to make sure that we would get there with Nova Scotia.”
The e-Tick program allows residents from participating provinces to use the eTick.ca website or the newly launched eTick app. From there they can quickly submit photos of ticks they find on animals, people, or in various habitats.
Most submissions will receive a reply from an expert identifying the species within 24 hours (or less) to learn whether or not the tick they found belongs to a species susceptible of transmitting the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease.
Besides tick species identification, all reported specimens are mapped in real time to better outline areas of distribution of various species. The service is free, and anyone can access the interactive online maps and data.
“Whenever a submission has been validated, the dot appears on the map in real time so people can go and look at this map and sort the submissions by time, by species, by province. You can say, okay, what’s around my area? Have there been a lot of submissions in my area,” Savage explained.
“It might make you think a bit more before you go for a walk in a certain spot…You can use our map to see where there are ticks then you might maybe be a little bit more aware than you would have been before looking at the map.”
With most of us confined to our own neighbourhoods and yards for walks and fresh air due to COVID-19, ticks might be far from our minds. Especially after the snow dump this week. But Savage said we should remain tick aware because they’re out there.
“An issue this year is that people go outside and walk more than they usually do, they walk the dog twice as much as they normally do, so this whole confinement period has changed people’s behaviour a little bit,” she said.
“We don’t want to make people scared of anything, we just want to make sure that people know that unlike us, ticks are not confined and they are moving.”
This is particularly true if you live in suburban areas. Savage said if you see deer, mice, groundhogs, squirrels, and other wildlife around your home, the odds are good ticks are hanging around too. She wants to encourage people to enjoy the outdoors, but remain vigilant about continuing to conduct tick checks on themselves and their pets even while confined to their own properties and neighbourhoods.
“I think a lot of people remain under the impression that ticks are only in national parks or in heavily forested environments, or that ticks are not around their homes. While this may certainly apply in some densely populated areas, as soon as you get into the suburbs and you get a mixture of houses and trees and long grasses and vegetation, well the ticks will be there,” she said.
“When people walk around their homes they feel more protected which, depending on how they’ve arranged their lives, depending on where they live, that might be correct. But if they’ve been walking the dog a lot, even if they stay on the roads, the dogs aren’t necessarily going to stay on the roads and so animals will go and walk in the high grasses and will pick up ticks.”
The e-Tick program was developed by Savage in 2015 as a pilot project in Quebec. Last year, it expanded to include Ontario and New Brunswick. She worked all winter to add Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Saskatchewan to the roster. Before bringing the program into a province, Savage said they have to have buy-in from provincial public health officials.
“The messages we disseminate, we develop by province and we develop with regional provincial health authorities so we need their full participation,” she said.
“It takes a bit of work for them, so takes a bit of convincing on our behalf. Some provinces are naturally very eager. For example Saskatchewan approached us. They were slated to go next year and they contacted us and said we’d be interested to go now.”
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted to humans who are bitten by an infected blacklegged tick. In Nova Scotia, only the blacklegged tick causes Lyme disease, and not all blacklegged ticks carry the bacteria.
“Nova Scotia has a suitable climate for tick populations. Blacklegged ticks survive best in areas that provide a moist habitat and are often found in and near wooded or forested areas, shrubs, long grass, leaf litter, urban parks and gardens,” notes a section on the province’s website dedicated to communicable disease prevention and control.
“Adult blacklegged ticks are most active in the spring and fall. They remain active until the temperature is consistently below 4°C. Larvae and nymphs are most active in the spring and summer.”
Nova Scotia’s Tick Borne Diseases Response Plan was published by the province in April 2019. The 12-page document notes that from 2002 to 2017, there were a total of 1,606 cases of Lyme disease reported in the province. In 2018, there were 438 reported cases.
Savage said she’s heard from many people who’ve submitted tick photos through e-Tick that the rapid response and identification helped quell fear and anxiety.
“If you were bitten by a brown dog tick, you might have a red spot on your skin but you won’t be spending hours looking at that red spot thinking ‘Oh my god, bullseye rash,’ because we told you it’s a brown dog tick,” she said.
In addition to collaborating with provincial public health officials on messaging, Savage said they have a local team working on the ground in each province. These teams typically include academics, public health representatives, and/or graduate students.
“These people know their local fauna very well, and ticks change. The fauna of southern Quebec is not the same as the fauna of Saskatchewan for example,” she said.
In Nova Scotia, the e-Tick program’s collaborators and project leaders are Acadia University biology professors Dave Shutler and Kirk Hillier.
“I think that generally speaking, the country needs a better handle on tick surveillance and the prevalence of Lyme disease overall,” Hillier said in an interview.
“Certainly Nova Scotia is really the hotspot for the spread of the blacklegged tick and Lyme disease in Canada, so really it makes sense that we have as many options for improving surveillance that we can, whether it’s active surveillance like going out and collecting ticks with various research organizations or through passive surveillance.”
Hillier said they’re working with Nova Scotia Public Health officials on the project and hope to have an official e-Tick launch before the long weekend in May.
“We have many different challenges we’re dealing with now in Nova Scotia, but of course the ticks aren’t going away and the Lyme disease is not going away, in addition to other potential things that can vector as well,” he said.
“I think that it’s important, particularly given the fact that people’s minds are on other things, to remind them during this time of year we are entering tick season. In any other year people would theoretically maybe be more cognizant of it, but I think getting the word out there to remind people that they need to stay safe and they need to stay vigilant is more important now than ever.”
Hillier and Shutler will oversee the local tick identification experts and are sharing supervision of students trained to conduct tick identifications and operating the e-Tick system. He said the program also offers potential spin-off projects.
“There may be student research opportunities that stem from the data collected through e-Tick in Nova Scotia,” Hillier said. “Or maybe where citizens who are submitting ticks can also submit the actual physical tick samples that we can do experiments on, that kind of thing.”
Hillier said he expects the most prevalent ticks they’ll identify in the weeks and months ahead will be blacklegged ticks and common dog ticks, but he’s interested to see what other species might pop up.
“There are things found on wildlife like Ixodes cookei (groundhog tick) and things like this that are found in Nova Scotia, species found on rabbits, moose. These are ticks that are found but rarely encountered by humans unless they’re trappers or hunters or something like this,” Hillier said.
“There’s plenty of species out there, it’s just whether or not we have regular human interaction with those species.”
Savage said she’s excited about the continued expansion of her e-Tick program because it will provide researchers with data they wouldn’t be able to collect otherwise. All data is shared with provincial and public health agencies. Because it’s compiled in real-time, if researchers see something unusual or noteworthy they can immediately alert public health officials.
“Think of this as us having now thousands of field technicians collecting for us, something that is just not possible when you’re running on public health resources,” she said.
“It’s basically passive surveillance, but we are multiplying the effort by hundreds so we are able to go in places where scientists would not normally go sampling.”
Another key advantage to having so many people monitoring tick movements and behaviour is they can keep a much closer eye on a number of species which are slowly creeping northward.
“The blacklegged tick was not really here 30 years ago, and now it’s everywhere. It’s not alone. There are a number of others moving up and having people everywhere submitting these ticks allows us to be quite aware. Whenever one of these potential newcomers pops up on our screen, we know immediately,” she said.
“If over the course of several weeks we were to get a dozen, two or three dozen of the lone star tick for example, one that we’re keeping an eye on, that would be probably a good enough indication that someone should go there and sample on the ground and convert this passive data into what’s called active surveillance.”