Urban Wildlife Researchers Share How to Avoid Ticks


May 11, 2021

Urban Wildlife Institute scientists have been in the field studying the relationship between Chicagoland’s urban mammals and tick-borne disease risk, with a purpose to better understand how urban sprawl affects the transmission of disease between wildlife and humans.

Did you know that public health risks from tick-borne disease are increasing in the United States, particularly in the Midwest? Some tick-borne diseases (e.g. Lyme disease) can cause life-long illness with diverse symptoms.

Lincoln Park Zoo staff are investigating the relationship between mammal host communities, tick densities, and tick-borne disease. In addition, staff are also examining risk of Lyme disease for people within recreational green spaces by surveying for ticks throughout the Chicago metropolitan area.

To survey ticks, researchers use a “drag cloth” method, which consists of dragging a flannel cloth over vegetation and leaf litter to mimic the movement of an animal through the space. Ticks that have latched onto the flannel are removed with forceps and then placed in vials of ethanol to preserve them for pathogen testing.

Caught in action, a researcher drags a flannel cloth over vegetation and leaf litter. Photo courtesy of Kim Fake.

The collected ticks are sent to collaborators at the Medical Entomology Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for species identification and diagnostic testing for common pathogens. This work is part of the tick-borne disease surveillance program which is funded by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

How exactly does this project help reduce disease risk from ticks for people across the Chicagoland area? Different species of ticks can vector different diseases! By determining if, and which ticks are present in greenspaces, researchers can determine and express the need for education and outreach efforts in those areas. The key is education and prevention.

Pictured above is a female American dog tick. Photo courtesy of Kim Fake.

There are many ways to reduce your risk of tick bites while enjoying the Great Outdoors. Check out the tips, below, to safely recreate in outdoor spaces this spring and summer!

Tip #1: Know where you might encounter a tick

Ticks live in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas and are typically most active when the weather is warm during spring and fall. When engaging in outdoor activities, be sure to take preventative measures to keep yourself safe.

Tip #2: Wear the right clothing

Long-sleeves and long pants in warm weather may not seem ideal, but they limit your exposure to ticks. Try out some light-weight clothing on your next hike and be sure to tuck your pant legs into your socks for additional protection.

Tip #3: Use insect repellent

Keep your eyes peeled for insect repellents that contain DEET, picaridin, or IR3535. Or, oil of lemon eucalyptus can be used on skin and clothing to repel ticks and prevent tick bites. Permethrin products can be used to treat hiking boots, clothing, and camping gear. It even remains protective through several washings! For all products, be sure to read the labels on their respective containers for proper usage instructions.

Tip #4: Check for ticks

Always inspect your body, or your furry friends, following outdoor activity in spaces where you might encounter ticks. Inspect under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, back of the knees, in and around the hair, between the legs, and around the waist. You never know where you may find a tick! If you spot one, stay calm and remove it.

Look at the blacklegged tick found on a researcher’s pant leg! Photo courtesy of Kim Fake.