Talking Birdy!

Today I finished up the 5th week of my 13 week field season!

For some researchers, parts of their research can only be done a few months out of the year. My research is limited to the late spring and summer, somewhat due to my class schedule and somewhat due tick activity. This data collection period is known as a field season, and it’s what a lot of researchers live for. I know I do!

This week we started our third round of tick collections at our sites and we started catching birds and searching them for ticks!

How do we catch birds?

We use a technique called mist-netting. I want to start off by saying this takes lots of training and bird safety is always our highest priority. Special federal and state permits are required to catch birds this way. Mist-netting is a very common, safe, humane method of sampling birds.

A mist net is a very fine mesh net designed specifically for catching birds. It’s similar to a volleyball net but starts near the ground and is about 7 feet tall. Once the net is set up, it’s almost invisible. Birds will fly into the net, get stuck, and hang out until we come along and carefully take them out.

Once the bird is out of the net, we can collect tons of information! We put some fancy silver bling on the birds leg so we know if this bird is ever caught again.

Part of my project involves checking the birds for ticks. To do this, I gently blow apart the feathers to see the birds skin. If any ticks are found, they will be removed and tested for diseases!

Click here for a video of me performing a tick check on a northern cardinal.**

**Cardinals bite pretty hard (one actually drew blood from me earlier this week), so if you take offense to the word bastard, you may want to mute the video 🙂

We’re up to 2,765 ticks collected!

Thanks for reading! As always, please ask questions!

Megan

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Two Weeks Down!

Hey everyone! It’s been a while. I apologize for my absence, but I don’t think I had much worth sharing.

Recently, I finished my first two weeks of field work. We collected ticks at 16 sites across an urbanization gradient in Oklahoma City, OK.

How have you been collecting ticks?

One of a ticks main goals is to find a host and take a blood meal, so we use this to our advantage. We’ve been using two methods of collecting ticks: CO2 trapping and flagging.

CO2 Trapping

CO2 trapping involves a wooden board with tape around all the edges and a container full of dry ice in the middle.

Dry ice is solid CO2, and ticks will migrate towards CO2 thinking it’s a potential host. When they try to find the source of the CO2, they’ll get stuck on the tape! We pull them off, stick them in a tube full of alcohol, and ID them in the lab.

Flagging

When we flag for ticks, we take essentially a flag made of white, felt-like material and drag it across the ground and vegetation in a sort of sweeping motion. Ticks actively questing for hosts will latch on to the flag, thinking it’s a host, and we’ll pick them off!

So far we have collected, IDed and sexed 752 ticks!

The next two weeks will be full of more tick collections and vegetation surveys. Then, we’ll start catching birds and searching them for ticks!

Thanks for reading 🙂

Megan

How do you contract tick-borne diseases?

How do you contract tick-borne diseases?

The short answer: An infected tick bit you.

But where did the tick get the disease? How did the disease get from the tick into me? How did I get this tick in the first place?

This process is fairly complicated with many ifs ands and buts. Here, I’ll describe the basics of this process with plans to build upon this post in the future.

First, let’s start with the tick’s life cycle.

1I’m a visual person, so I’m going to start off with a visual aid. Most hard tick’s life cycles look something like this:

After hatching, a tick goes through three different stages. In order to move onto the next life stage a tick must find a host, consume a blood meal, and go through a molt (with the exception of adult ticks which reproduce and then die).

Some ticks are single-host ticks (in this case host is just a fancy work for the organism a tick takes a blood meal from), others find a different host for every meal, and others use the same host for some, but not all, stages.

How do ticks find hosts?

In order to find a host a tick will “quest.” Questing is a behavior where a tick will basically stand on a piece of grass with its third and fourth legs, while holding its first set of legs extended. Imagine a child who wants to be picked-up.

Fun fact: Ticks use breath, odor, body heat, and vibrations to make sure their quest locations fall near well-used paths. This increases their chances of coming in contact with a host. Cool, right?

2

A questing tick. Image courtesy of: http://amberleaanimalhospital.com/

What happens once a tick finds a host?

Once a tick is on a host it will look for the spot it wants to feed and pierce the skin with its chelicerae. The tick uses its chelicerae to dig deeper into the skin, eventually inserting its hypostome, which can essentially be considered a feeding tube. Most ticks release a cement-like material that ensures the tick will stay attached to the host during feeding.

Once the tick has finished its blood meal, it will drop to the ground and attempt to molt or reproduce depending on its life stage.

Fun fact: Ticks filter out the excess water in blood while feeding in order to concentrate their meal.

3

A tick’s mouthparts. Photo curtsey of: http://southsidevets.ca/

How does a tick get a pathogen?

If a tick feeds on a host with a pathogen (disease causing agent), the tick will ingest not only the blood of that animal, but the pathogens found in the blood. The pathogen will then cross the gut wall, enter the hemolymph (essentially the equivalent to blood in invertebrates), and enter the ticks body tissue cells.

Alternatively, some pathogens are from an infected adult female tick to her eggs.

How does that pathogen get inside me?

While a tick is feeding, it may release some of its own saliva into the host, kind of like bug backwash. The saliva will contain any pathogens the tick has (either from ingestion or birth). If conditions are right, once the pathogens are released into the hosts blood stream, they can multiply and wreak havoc on their host.

A lot of this information is already available online, but I think it’s important for the basis of this study and for future, more intensive posts. Maybe you even learned something new 🙂

As always, don’t be afraid to ask questions or make suggestions!

Thanks for reading

Megan

 

Seven Ways to Get You or Your Little Ones Involved in Science

When I used to think of scientists, I thought of people in lab coats putting chemicals into a vial and watching what happens or staring at slides under a microscope. It took me until my junior year of college to realize science is happening all around you, all the time.

The projects listed below are more outdoors, observation-based, ecological science projects that require little to no prior experience.

1) E-bird.org

What is it? E-bird is a website by the Audubon and Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

What do I have to do? Keep track of the birds you see daily. This could be anywhere! Even if it’s only in your back yard and you only know a few species of birds, some data is better than no data at all 🙂 Then, upload your sightings onto the website.

Why should I do it? Some studies have compared e-bird data to data collected by trained scientists and found it’s statistically the same! Isn’t that amazing?

Plus, it’s free and you can put as much or as little effort in as you’d like.

2) iNaturalist.org

What is it? A website sponsored by the California Academy of Sciences, similar to e-bird but not limited to birds!

What do I have to do? Visit the website, make an account, and start uploading!

Why should I do it? iNaturalist has an especially handy feature where you can snap pictures of organisms you don’t know, and someone will provide you with an identification of the organism. They also have citizen science projects that focus on anything you can imagine. It’s a little more customizable than e-bird. It’s also free and you can put in as little or as much effort as you’d like.

3) Neighborhood Nestwatch

What is it? A program run by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center

What do I have to do? Unfortunately this is only available in certain cities. Check http://neighborhoodnestwatch.weebly.com/ to sign up.

Why should I do it? Each year a scientist will come to your home and catch birds in your backyard! They will put a unique combination of color bands on the birds so you can keep re-sighting them all year long. Whenever you see a bird with colored bands again, you’re providing important data on bird survivorship in urban areas! Plus it’s free J

4) Natures Notebook

What is it? A phenology based study for citizen scientists.

What do I have to do? Go to https://www.usanpn.org/natures_notebook, make an account, do a ten-minute training session, and then start making observations. Upload your results to the website.

Why should I do it? Phenology is the study of timing of life events. If you keep making the same observations year after year you can get a sense of what’s changing around you. Climate change (which I just found out is actually fake and invented by the Chinese… sorry for the sarcasm) will continue to change when things happen in nature. This website is super customizable to your interests. There’s over 1100 species you can choose to observe! One of my colleagues used nature’s notebook data to present a research poster at a science symposium. Plus, it’s free!

5) EarthWatch Institute

What is it? A program scientists use to find volunteers to help them with their research

What do I have to do? Unfortunately, these expeditions do cost money. But just head to earthwatchinstitute.org and book your trip!

Why should I do it? I had the privilege of working with a few EarthWatch teams and let me tell you… you do exactly what I did as a trained scientist. You are conducting research and collecting data that will be used in published papers! Neat right? They have both adult and teen teams. Plus, some of the places you can visit are breathtakingly beautiful and some of the animals you can work on are super charismatic.

6) Volunteering with a graduate student or professor

What is it? Almost all colleges and universities are conducting some sort of research.

What do I have to do? I’d start by checking out the website of your nearest college or university and looking at professors. Each professor will have a research interest whether it’s the human brain, bacteria, a certain disease, birds, mammals, or fish. Chances are if you’re interested in it, someone is probably studying it! Then send an email or call the professor if their phone number is listed and express interest in volunteering. They may say yes, they may say no, but don’t let that deter you. Keep trying!

Why should I do it? You’re going to be helping people just like me, and most of us love to share our love of science. Almost every project I have worked on has volunteers from outside the program and their contributions are so insanely appreciated.

7) Write down observations

What is it? Exactly what it sounds like!

What do I have to do? Simply make observations on the world around you. What day of the year did your favorite flower start to bloom? When did you see your first baby deer of the season? When was the first snowfall of the year?

Why should I do it? This is a perfect way to see the changes in phenology right in your backyard. They may not seem to differ much year after year, but what about 10 years from now? 20? I’ve seen phenology models made from citizen scientist data and they’re awesome!

Thanks for reading,

Megan

I’m here… now what?

As many of you may not know, I started at Oklahoma State University on January 17th. I am going to receive a masters of science in natural resource ecology and management.

Graduate school is little different as a science major. Most of us are not only required to complete classes, but also a research project on a topic of your choice (as long as you can get funding… good luck!). Then we write a thesis (basically a collecting of publishable scientific papers) telling what we did, why we did it, what our results were, and why those results are important. We must defend this thesis in front of a panel of peers and professors in order to graduate.

Well, what am I studying?

Basically, my research will try to answer a few simple questions…

1) What kind of ticks are found in the Oklahoma City metro area?

2) What diseases, if any, are these ticks carrying?

3) How did these ticks get here?

4) Once the ticks get here, what allows them to keep living, even in the middle of a city?

Easy enough right? Probably not. Science has a way of deceiving, frustrating, and fascinating me. What logically makes sense to you may not be the way Mother Nature operates.

Why should I care about this?

Ticks are vectors, which essentially means an organism that carries a disease to other organisms, of many diseases that can affect humans. Some common tick-borne diseases in the United States are Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis. All of which have the potential to destroy vital organs and kill you. Just being blunt.

In the United States, more vector born disease are transmitted by ticks than any other organism.

But I don’t live in Oklahoma, why should I care about this?

Do you live in an urban area? Chances are you do. As of 2014 over half the world’s population lives in an urban area. That number is only supposed to increase. 2

The abundance of ticks and the diseases they carry has increased in many urban areas in the United States. 3

Studying ticks in one city can lay down the groundwork, so to speak, for studying ticks in other cities. Yes, things are going to be different because every city is unique but at least there’s a place to start. So yes, you may not live in Oklahoma and this may not show exactly what will happen in your city, but hopefully it will help another scientist figure out what is.

What’s the big picture here?

More people are moving to urban areas, more ticks are moving into urban areas, ticks bring diseases, and you don’t want diseases. Or maybe you do?? I don’t know your life.

I am trying to figure out how the ticks get there and what conditions the ticks need to survive. If we figure this out, with proper management we can reduce the number of ticks (hopefully).

For example, if we find ticks are almost always found in areas with lots of leaf litter, we can remove the leaf litter and hopefully reduce your chances of encountering a tick and therefore a disease that tick might be carrying. YAY!

OK, I think I’m done for now.

Sorry for the long post, hopefully it’s not too confusing. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!

In the future I’ll probably give a little more information than just ticks 101. If you’re dying to know more right this instant, the CDC and NIH have some great resources on tick-borne disease.

In my future posts I’m thinking of telling you guys HOW I’m going to do this. I’m also trying to brainstorm a list of ways anyone can get involved in science… even with no science background! If you all have any other suggestions, please let me know!

Thanks for reading,

Megan

 

1 Division of Infectious Diseases

2 United Nations

3—here’s a bunch of papers stating this:

Salgo et al. 1988; Maupin et al. 1991; Marshall et al. 2003; Jobe et al. 2007; Bonnefoy et al. 2008; Rydzewski et al. 2012; Blanton et al. 2014