Meet the Tick Hunters
This story is part of “Tickpocalypse,” a multi-part special report.
Rick Ostfeld is a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. Felicia Keesing is the head of the biology department at Bard College. The two are co-directors of the Tick Project, a five-year study in Dutchess County, New York, that’s testing ways to reduce Lyme disease risk in areas that are deeply infested with Lyme-carrying ticks. They are also husband and wife. Who better to explain the good, the bad, and the gross about working with ticks?
Elemental: Of all the things you could devote your professional lives to, you chose a creepy-crawly bug best known for transmitting a debilitating, sometimes even fatal, disease to humans and their children. Why?
Rick Ostfeld: I guess I’d say that we didn’t choose it, it chose us. When you study certain types of mammals and you have an up close and personal relationship with them, you really can’t avoid the observation that they can be just covered with parasites. Back in the early ’90s, when I started working in the Eastern forests with white-footed mice for reasons unrelated to Lyme disease, I noticed they were heavily infested with immature blacklegged ticks. And so, they chose me.
Let’s say you’re at a cocktail party and a new acquaintance asks you what you do for a living. Are the words “ticks” or “Lyme disease” included in your answer?
Keesing: That’s why we don’t go to cocktail parties anymore. No, honestly, I usually say that I’m a biology professor. That’s more of a conversation opener than to say that I study ticks.
Ostfeld: I don’t have it as nice as Felicia does. I can’t say I’m a biology professor. If they ask me, “What sort of biology do you do?” It’s hard to avoid the T word, and then all bets are off.
Keesing: What I have trouble with are questions about new pathogens or ticks in the area. That’s when I usually make some kind of joke and try to walk away. I don’t want to make people frightened about things we don’t know much about.
Ostfeld: One sometimes awkward thing that can happen is that people think they know a lot, and much of what they know isn’t actually accurate. So they will pontificate about something having to do with ticks, like, “One fell out of a tree onto my head,” and you have to ask yourself, Should I bother telling this person that they don’t fall out of trees? Or should I politely smile and go and get another drink? Or, people will ask me, “So, I heard that Lyme disease can be transmitted by mosquito bites now.” Well, no, that’s never been demonstrated.
What’s the strangest sort of question you have to handle?
Keesing: The conspiracy theory that the government made the Lyme bacterium, that’s gotta be up there. I mean, really?
Ostfeld: There was a man at a public event where I was speaking a few years ago who, in the question and answer session, pontificated about how the Lyme disease bacterium was created by the CIA at Plum Island as a biowarfare weapon — which if you know anything about this bacterium is absolutely ludicrous. It would be the stupidest biowarfare weapon you could possibly imagine. In any event, I said that this was actually not true, the DNA of this bacterium has been amplified in museum specimens of mice that were collected around the turn of the 20th century. So that predates Plum Island. And I said, there was a recent discovery of a mummified human corpse in the Swiss Alps in a National Geographic expedition that was 13,000 years old and they amplified Borrelia burgdorferi DNA from this mummified frozen corpse. And this guy responded by saying, “Yeah, so, you think it’s far fetched that the CIA would take this frozen human corpse and dump it out of a helicopter in the Swiss Alps to cover up what they did?” So there’s no correcting the conspiracy theorists.
“It’s hard to avoid the T word, and then all bets are off.”
Both of you spend a lot of time doing field research in tick-infested areas. And you live your lives in tick-infested areas. Are you afraid of getting bitten? Are you afraid of ticks?
Ostfeld: Both of us have been bitten by plenty of blacklegged ticks. For me, it’s definitely dozens. Felicia has spent a lot of time doing field work in East Africa. I would say hundreds of tick bites there because they can occur in large masses; you can have little welts all over your legs. And as a consequence of our encounters with ticks, both of us have an acquired immunity to tick bites. We both react while the tick is starting to embed in our skin. We tend to have an itching, burning sensation, which is unusual; ticks typically feed completely undetected by people. It can wake us up — I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with a single larval tick biting me somewhere. I’ll go into the bathroom and there’s a single black spot in the middle of a red welt and it’s a tick, and more often than not it’s already dead and it’s not engorged on my blood. So that’s very helpful. And neither of us has ever been diagnosed with a tick-borne disease. So I can honestly tell you that I am not afraid of being in tick-infested habitats. I’ve spent a ton of time in them, and it doesn’t bother me if I find a tick crawling on me.
So, wait, the tick is being killed by your immune response?
Ostfeld: Yes, we are responding to some unknown antigens, some unknown protein in tick saliva. There’s interest in trying to figure this out to create an anti-tick vaccine. If you just have an anti-Lyme vaccine, there could be problems with a false sense of security, and potentially increase the risk of getting a different tick-borne disease. We’ve offered our blood to laboratories that might be working on this. So far there haven’t been any takers.
If you’re not afraid of ticks, then what are you afraid of?
Ostfeld: Conspiracy theorists? I’ll say, for Felicia — in the course of doing her research in Africa, which is mostly by herself — she has been chased by elephants; she had a field assistant who stepped over a spitting cobra, which then reared up and hooded itself as she screamed at him to run; I watched her step over a puff adder. She’s gonna be afraid of ticks in New York? No, I don’t think so.
Do you ever have tick dreams?
Keesing: I have had them, but they’re not from here. It’s when I’m in Kenya, usually. Some of the properties where I work in Kenya are just crawling with ticks. There is something about that feeling that if you have to walk through these savanna grasses, they’re just everywhere — that creeps even me out. In the dream, it’s ridiculous densities, thousands of them, and you’ve got your protective clothing on and still, they’re getting in everywhere. I haven’t had that happen, but I’ve dreamed about it.
To most people, ticks are just plain disgusting at best, and terrifying at worst. And I’m not sure what you’ve said so far is going to change that. What would you say to people to help them see ticks differently?
Ostfeld: Well, I’m not sure I’d want them to see ticks too differently. I’m not sure I’d want people to get too comfortable around ticks. But I should say that I have an enormous respect for ticks, and what they’re able to do, how they have evolved their lifestyle, how they evade all these defenses of hosts. Ticks are amazing. Their saliva contains a pharmacopeia of biologically active chemicals that have evolved to allow them to stay on a host, stuck to their skin, and feed for three or four days or a couple of weeks. They have an analgesic that kills pain, they have anticoagulants that keeps the blood flowing, they have antihistamines that inhibit an inflammatory response. They’re manipulating us in very sophisticated ways. And some of them are beautiful. They have these pretty patterns on their backs. They can be colorful. They’re sexually dimorphic; the females are usually the colorful ones and the males drab. They don’t have eyes, though, so why is that? It’s not as though the females are advertising their sexiness to a male, because he can’t see whether she’s red or brown or black. To me, there’s a huge amount of interest in these highly sophisticated, exquisitely complicated beasts. That are also super dangerous.
Felicia, I’m hearing some passion from Rick around ticks.
Keesing: I’m feeling mildly jealous. Ticks — look, you’ve gotta respect them, you’ve gotta like them, for all the reasons Rick said. And I think, for both of us — Rick started out studying sea otters off the California coast, and I started out immersed in landscapes of giraffes and elephants — the romance of those places stays with us, right? And yet we have both gravitated toward this area where we feel like people pay attention because the research we’re doing is about their health. The work we’re doing has impact for people’s lives and their well-being. So there’s a lot to like about this research, I guess is the takeaway.
Yeah, even though you’ve gone from charismatic megafauna to —
Ostfeld: Repulsive microfauna.
This story is part of “Tickpocalypse,” a multi-part special report.