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As she drags a light-colored flannel sheet across the forest floor, Jada West ’24 searches for microscopic creatures most of us hope to never encounter.

Pulling it over 100 square meters of leaves, plants, and soil she captures ticks like a lint roller absorbing fuzz balls from a favorite sweater. As she hoists the cloth into the air, just inches from her face, she inspects it for signs of any movement—her eyes widening as she discovers a plethora of Blacklegged tick larvae (baby deer ticks), the largest collection of parasitic arachnids she has ever seen.

“Finding that massive number of ticks after one drag, I was simply astonished,” West said. “It was really shocking to drag and collect close to a hundred or more ticks in that site. It was an unexpected and interesting find.”

Jada West '24 environmental studies major

Working with Dr. Kate Cleary, Dr. Glenn Johnson, Dr. Bridget Amulike, and Dr. Jessica Rogers from the Departments of BiologyEnvironmental Science and Environmental Studies, West and a team of four other students—Alyssa Card ’26, Annabell Smith-Goolden ’25, Lara Martin ‘27, and Paige Brown ’24—have been studying small mammals and examining tick abundance within rural, urban and interface zones around Potsdam this summer.

After securing three grants from the St. Lawrence River Research and Environmental Fund, the Walker Fellowship, and the Lougheed Center for Applied Learning, the four faculty members selected a team of five students for the project.  “We wanted to recruit people who didn’t have previous experience so this could be part of their skill building during college,” said Cleary, an assistant professor of environmental studies.

As an extension of a mammal diversity research project the professors worked on last year, they have been setting Sherman live rodent traps, pitfall traps (a bucket placed in the ground to capture small animals), and bucket cam traps (upside-down bucket with a motion-activated game camera) to catch and release an assortment of small critters ranging from Peromyscus (deer mice and white-footed mice) and voles to shrews, chipmunks, and red squirrels.

By using Sherman and pitfall traps, the team has been able to capture hundreds of small mammals, tag them, and inspect them for ticks. “By and large we captured Peromyscus, and those are also the main hosts of Lyme disease and anaplasmosis,” Cleary said. “We tagged them with metal rings clipped onto their ears, and with those tags, we can figure out better estimates of the abundance of the mice. We have been looking at the abundance of small mammals, looking at the abundance of ticks, and then seeing whether those ticks carry Lyme disease and anaplasmosis (another tick-borne disease with similar symptoms to Lyme). The idea is to look at the population levels of these species at rural, urban and interface sites, and see if they are different. People think when they go in the woods, they’re going to get Lyme disease, but you might be more likely to get Lyme disease here in the village than in the woods.”

A Blacklegged tick photographed in the lab on campus, before being sent to Texas to be tested for Lyme disease.

From 2016 to 2019  there were 271 confirmed cases of Lyme disease, 20 cases of anaplasmosis, and four cases of babesiosis in St. Lawrence County from Blacklegged (deer) ticks. Even though there are four species of ticks throughout New York state (Blacklegged ticks, American Dog ticks, Lone Star ticks, and Woodchuck ticks) that carry diseases, only Blacklegged ticks have not been confirmed in St. Lawrence County. “The ones we're after are the Blacklegged ticks, which carry the Lyme disease,” said Johnson, a professor of biology at SUNY Potsdam with more than 25 years of teaching experience. “Deer get blamed for this, but the first hosts are small mammals, and without small mammals, you wouldn’t have the diseases.”

Using game cameras to detect small mammal predators in the region like racoons, minks, foxes, and coyotes, they are also starting to look at ways in which small mammal populations are controlled by larger predators. “The idea is that those mammals, certain ones, may regulate the small mammals,” Johnson explained. “One hypothesis is that the rural area should have more coyotes and fewer foxes, because coyotes reduce fox populations, whereas in town you’re more likely to see foxes, and foxes eat small mammals more often than coyotes.”

In theory, an urban setting would allow the foxes to eliminate more Peromyscus and white-footed mice, in turn reducing the transmission of Lyme disease and anaplasmosis to human populations. Over the next several years, they will continue to analyze their data to see if it supports their hypothesis.

The students also conducted ground cover plot sampling to determine the density, coverage and species of trees and shrubs at their sample sites, getting an estimate of the grass, forbs (herbaceous broadleaf plants), woody plants, bare soil, leaf litter, logs, and rocks at their test sites. “The second thing we did was sample the canopy cover of trees using a densiometer, taking 10 readings at each of the four cardinal compass points,” Johnson said. “If we see differences in mammal diversity or abundance in those three areas, this might help explain it.”

The unique grant-funded research project has been an excellent way for students to parlay what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it in a real-world setting. “This internship has given me the opportunity to take a deeper look into wildlife biology. I’ve never had the opportunity to touch and be up close with wildlife,” West said.

Surprisingly, after capturing more than 300 small mammals, the team only found two ticks, but through the process of dragging for ticks on the ground, they found more activity—initially capturing 16 ticks before West and her classmates discovered more than 100 tick larvae at one of their 15 sites in Potsdam. Back on campus, the team placed the ticks in a freezer, before shipping them to a lab in Texas to test for Lyme disease and anaplasmosis. They’re now waiting on the results, and as they enter the fall semester, they will analyze the data and answer questions about small mammals' abundance, diversity, and the resulting impact on tick-borne diseases throughout the region—results that can provide valuable outlook on the extent of tickborne diseases in the area.

For West and her classmates, the hands-on project has been an impactful experience as they pursue their careers in biology, environmental science, and environmental studies. “The teamwork has been great,” West said. “I haven’t worked with a team like this before, so it’s been awesome to have that support.”

Article and photos by Jason Hunter