You may have noted that with the first signs of spring come an abundance of media messages reminding you that this is also the beginning of tick season. Ticks are not new to our landscape; but rapid climatic and environmental changes are leading to a northward expansion; and explosive population growth of certain species such as Ixodes scapularis; —commonly known as the deer tick or black-legged tick; that transmits Lyme disease —in eastern North America.
Even though I spent most of my childhood chasing bugs in southern Québec; I was in my 30s when I encountered my first local tick. I’m nostalgic for times when ticks were not part of a parent’s worry list; but I am; thrilled to live in an era where technology has allowed my team; to create eTick.ca —an online image-based identification platform; enabling us to rapidly inform anyone of the risks associated with a tick they find.
Inspiration from butterflies
A number of services; offered across the country to help citizens obtain the information they need about ticks and tick-borne disease. These services, which can include identification procedures by local government-mandated agencies, vary from province to province. When available, they usually involve the examination of specimens, a procedure that may take a long time, postal and bureaucratic delays obliging.
In 2015, we created a pilot version of the citizen-science project eTick.ca; in the province of Québec; to address this bottleneck issue; and demonstrate that tick species could be identified from images with great accuracy. The experience was a great success; and in 2019 we revamped the user interface; and expanded our geographical scope to include Ontario and New Brunswick. Additional provinces will hopefully be added over the next year.
Why does rapid identification matter?
There are more than 40 tick species in Canada and only a handful of those are of medical importance. Knowing that the tick you found on your daughter this morning is of no medical relevance will certainly be a great relief. On the other hand, if you were bitten by a tick; known to transmit the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi; which causes Lyme disease, in an area deemed at risk, you may be eligible for a single dose of preventative antibiotics that would prevent an infection from developing in the event that the tick was infected.
By providing the location where the tick was found, the public is directly engaged in the process of tick surveillance and monitoring. Having the records appear on a map in real-time allows us, scientists, to examine the timing of tick activity and the presence and abundance of different species as they occur instead of waiting for end-of-year reports. For hunters, campers, gardeners and other individuals who enjoy outdoor activities, the map provides information about the presence of ticks where they live or in an area they plan to visit, and a reminder that prevention is always the best solution.