NYC ticks

By studying how people shape the urban environment in ways that expose them to vectors and pathogens, we explore how the ecological and social factors intersect to influence human health.

Research project

With 8.6 million people, New York City offers 96% of its residents a park within a ten-minute walk of their home. This high number of parks per capita offers ample opportunities for humans to positively interact with nature. By providing increased habitat and resources, these parks can also bring wildlife species into closer contact with dense human populations, potentially increasing the likelihood of zoonotic diseases, such as those carried by ticks. This study examines how hosts carrying pathogens and ticks navigate between the urban park ‘islands’ through vegetated corridors. Through tracking deer and mice movement, sampling tick and mice populations in urban parks, and screening for pathogens of concern in the wildlife and tick populations, this project will determine how tick-borne diseases, like Lyme disease, can emerge in highly fragmented landscapes like New York City.

Project lead: Meredith VanAcker, MS, PhD Candidate

Using next generation DNA sequencing, this project characterizes population differentiation and relatedness of blacklegged ticks in the northeastern United States along tick dispersal fronts. By studying population structure and gene flow at a fine spatial scale, we will gain insights into the corridors and landscape barriers that promote/prevent tick dispersal to relate expansion to mammal and bird host movement. The tick population genomics work will inform a spatially explicit host movement model to compare scenarios of tick distribution from small mammal, bird, and deer movement in urban, rural, and natural landscapes.

LAB MEMBER: Meredith VanAcker 

COLLABORATORS: Gisella Caccone (Yale University), Waheed Bajwa (New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene)

The transmission of tick-borne diseases to humans depend not only on the density and distribution of ticks but also on human behavior that determine where and how often they become exposed to ticks. On Staten Island, we aim to understand where are people most at risk of finding ticks: the parks, their own yards or a combination of both. To evaluate the risk in the yards, we are sampling ticks during household visits in properties located next to parks, in select high-risk neighborhoods. During these visits, we conduct surveys to understand what people know about ticks and disease and which protective measures they currently undertake or are willing to implement. This data will be combined with the data collected in parks and The Tick App to understand how can we better prevent tick exposure and provide custom-made solutions  for Staten Islanders.

Project lead: Pilar Fernandez, PhD, Postdoctoral Associate

The main goal of this project is to study human behavior, tick exposure and the risk of Lyme disease using a citizen science approach via a smartphone application, The Tick App..

The Tick App is a joint effort between partners at the NE-VBD (Diuk-Wasser lab at Columbia University) and the MW-VBD (University of Wisconsin-Madison). 

The Tick App uses a combination of surveys and geolocation technology to uncover how people's day-to-day activities play a role in their risk for tick-borne diseases. This information can help to develop disease control programs that allow people to enjoy their outdoor activities safely while reducing disease risk.

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Project lead: Pilar Fernandez, PhD, Postdoctoral Associate

From Tom and Jerry to Puss in Boots, many have been fascinated by the relationship between cats and mice. Despite an estimated population of 500,000 feral cats in New York City, their potential impact to urban zoonotic disease systems remains largely unexplored. This study examines the role of urban feral cats in the Lyme disease system as potential predators of the main host of the disease, the white-footed mouse. The aims of the study are to determine if cats eat white-footed mice and if their presence in urban parks changes the activity and distribution of mice, both of which may have implications for Lyme disease prevalence. 

Project lead: Laura Plimpton, MS Candidate

Longhorned ticks have recently invaded the United States and there is concern they may be able to transmit pathogens to humans they carry from their homeland in Asia or acquire new ones from our native animals.  We aim to determine if the newly invasive Asian longhorned tick feeds on medium-sized mammals (raccoons, opossums, skunks, woodchucks, rabbits, etc.). From our research last year we discovered that this tick species feeds on deer but not on small mammals (such as mice, chipmunks, or short-tailed shrews), which are the one carrying most human pathogens such as those causing Lyme disease.  These findings will help us understand the what pathogens may be carried by the longhorned tick and will direct future projects.

Project Lead: Danielle Tufts, PhD, Postdoctoral Associate

One of the many differences between forests and backyards is that no one rakes the leaves in the forest, leaving them to slowly decompose on the forest floor.  There they form the soft carpet known as “leaf litter”, which adds nutrients to the soil, protects new seedlings, and creates hiding places for small animals. This study will examine how the depth and quality of the leaf litter and other forest characteristics affect the number of mice, the number of ticks, and the role that leaves and plants play in the spread of Lyme disease.  

Project lead: Daniel Mathisson, MA Candidate

Do you like to be outdoors? Do you love to go to parks? Wouldn’t you like to enjoy summer at your local park without worrying about being bitten by a tick? This project on Staten Island, in collaboration with Cornell University, is geared towards looking at how people are utilizing certain areas within public parks. With this information, we are interested in collecting ticks in areas where the majority of park visitors like to be recreationally and asking these visitors about their knowledge of ticks and tick-borne diseases. One of our main goals is to learn how the park visitors protect themselves from tick bites and what we can do to increase the protection of park visitors from ticks and tick-related diseases. 

Project lead: Erin Hassett, MA candidate, Pilar Fernandez, PhD, Postdoctoral Associate