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Why one researcher is glad to get thousands of ticks in the mail


More than 16,000 ticks have arrived in Nate Nieto’s mailbox.

He’s an associate professor of microbiology at Northern Arizona University, and he launched a citizen science project to learn more about the diseases ticks can transmit. 

People from 49 states sent him (and his collaborators at Colorado State University) the ticks they found on themselves or other people or dogs.

“We started thinking that the majority of tick awareness is really in the Northeast and the Upper Midwest, and so really what we were trying to do is broaden that awareness to see where the distribution of ticks and the disease they carry [is]… what’s really the edge of this?”

He says using citizen scientists in this collaboration was powerful because they could get a lot of data really quickly.

“What we were hoping to do is figure out risk at the state level and the county level for a variety of tick-borne pathogens and then be able to report this back for the citizen scientists,” says Nieto.

He says the data they gathered underscore what the scientists already knew: that ticks are incredibly dynamic.

“They don’t always stick to these neat border lines. We also learned there’s a huge need for testing of ticks. We initially budgeted for 2,400 ticks,” he says. “There was a massive need for this on a nationwide scale.”

But of course, when so many people jump into a citizen science project, there can be some limitations.

“All sampling has its biases. We didn’t collect individual, personal data, so we have no idea about travel history, which is probably one of the most important aspects of the data that we’d like to have,” he says.

And they asked people what type of environment they found the tick in.

“We got everything from a very poetic description of a lake and field in the woods to ‘on my inner thigh,’” says Nieto.

“So humans are interpreting the way we’re asking these questions, so that just means we’re getting a variety of data types, which can confuse the issue in some cases.”

You can listen to the interview with Nate Nieto above, on today’s Environment Report.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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