Tick-borne Disease: Michigan Tech and Keweenaw Land Trust's Collaborative Research in the Face of Climate Change

   Climate change and urbanization are reshaping the distribution of wildlife, along with the parasites and diseases they carry. A striking example of this transformation is seen in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the white-footed mouse and its accompanying parasite, the black-legged tick, have expanded northward in the past 20 years, bringing Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases along with them. These mice serve as disease reservoirs that transmit zoonotic disease to the juvenile black-legged ticks that feed on them. As these ticks mature, they seek larger hosts, including deer, dogs, and humans, thereby increasing the risk of disease transmission to people and their pets.

   Contributing to this worrying trend are shorter winters, milder springs, and the spread of invasive plants like Japanese barberry, which create favorable conditions for both the mice and ticks, and consequently, the spread of tick-borne illnesses, such as Lyme disease. In response to this growing concern, a team of researchers at Michigan Technological University, in partnership with the Keweenaw Land Trust, is investigating how forest structure, invasive plants, and climate change interact to increase the prevalence of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases.

   This research involves safely trapping small mammals and birds across various Keweenaw Land Trust sites, including Marsin, Boston Pond, Paavola Wetlands, and Steve Farm Nature Areas, to collect saliva and tissue samples, as well as collect the ticks they carry. These efforts aim to assess the wildlife community and the parasites and zoonotic diseases they harbor. Initial results indicate that white-footed mice have become the dominant small mammal in fragmented forests, with about half of the captured mice testing positive for Lyme disease. In addition to our field efforts, researchers at Michigan Tech created a citizen science project, placing kiosks at veterinary clinics in Houghton and Hancock, the Ford Center in Alberta, and throughout the Michigan Tech campus to sample ticks that were found on people and their pets. We genetically assess diseases within collected ticks to better understand the prelevance of numerous pathogens, including Lyme disease. The team has launched the “tick talk” online platform (https://www.mtu.edu/tick-talk-monitoring/), where local citizens can view research results. Similarly, approximately half of the black-legged ticks collected by citizen scientists have also tested positive for Lyme disease.

   Moving forward, the Michigan Tech research team is committed to working with the Keweenaw Land Trust to understand drivers of nonnative wildlife disease reservoirs and their tick vectors. This understanding is necessary to develop actionable management strategies, potentially including the removal of invasive species like Japanese barberry and promoting intact, continuous forests. Through a combination of citizen science and focused field efforts at Keweenaw Land Trust nature areas, our collaborative team is dedicated to fostering a healthier, more resilient forest ecosystem for the community.


By Dr. Jared Wolfe


Dr. Jared Wolfe is an Assistant Professor in the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science at Michigan Tech. His fields of expertise include wildlife conservation in working landscapes, demographic modeling, and avian molts and plumage. 


If you are someone you know if interested in partnering with the Keweenaw Land Trust to conduct research or if you are interested in accessing our lands to conduct your own research, please contact Jill at jill@keweenawlandtrust.org  .