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New app encourages "citizen scientists" to aid in tick research

Close up image of blacklegged tick on piece of straw
Adobe Stock

Ever wanted to help researchers learn more about ticks and where people are being exposed to them? Now's your chance — and it's as easy as using the device that's likely already glued to the palm of your hand.

Michigan State University researchers, in conjunction with scientists at Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin, have created "The Tick App." The app, which can be downloaded on iOS and Android devices, seeks to help users learn about ticks, track tick encounters, and give users the opportunity to be "citizen scientists" in continuing tick research.

“We hope that the easy to use app will allow users to share their experiences with ticks to help prevent future tick bites, track periods of high tick activity and help identify areas with high tick risk,” Jean Tsao, associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at MSU and study researcher, said in a press release.

The app asks users to log their daily activities and tick encounters to help public health researchers learn more about tick activity. If you find a tick, you can share a photo on the app and get expert advice.

The app also provides information on how to identify the various types of ticks, which is particularly helpful for those who come across blacklegged ticks, which are known to transmit Lyme disease (and are the only tick to do so).

Learn more about Lyme disease and its symptoms.

"One of the most important things that I don't think people realize is that any time the temperature is above freezing, blacklegged ticks can be out and looking for their next meal," Megan Porter, an MSU graduate student researching ticks, said.

Michigan has been home to tick booms over the last few years, leading to an increase in awareness about Lyme disease, which is the the most common tick-borne disease in the state. Symptoms of Lyme disease can sometimes be confused with another condition also transmitted by ticks — Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness, or STARI. You can learn more about those symptoms here.

The easiest way to prevent tick bites? Wear long-sleeved shirts or pants when venturing into wooded areas, or wear EPA-approved insect repellents that contain DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus. When hiking, try to walk in the center of trails to avoid brushing up against plants on the edges where ticks like to hang out. Taking a shower and doing a tick check after being outdoors is also recommended. If a tick is on your body for less than 24 hours, your chance of getting Lyme disease is very small, according to experts.  However, the Centers for Disease Control stresses that early treatment of Lyme disease is essential for a quick recovery.

Similar citizen science projects have been launched recently to learn more about ticks and the disesases they transmit. In 2018, Nate Nieto, an associate professor of microbiology at Northern Arizona University, received more than 16,000 ticks collected from humans and dogs across 49 states in his mailbox. It was part of a collaboration with Colorado State University to learn more about the distribution of ticks and broaden awareness.

For the MSU researchers, however, they hope the app will make it easier to collect data on ticks in places they are unable to reach.

"It really helps us if people, you know, more eyes on the ground looking for ticks, because although my lab is doing an incredible job going around looking for ticks all over the state this summer, we cannot be everywhere," Tsao said.

To learn more about how to use the app, check out this convenient tutorial.

Jodi is Michigan Public's Director of Digital Audiences, leading and developing the station’s overall digital strategy.
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