Maine pest experts are searching for the lone star tick, a disease-ridden pest with a bite that can cause humans to become allergic to red meat. Spreading north from the southern states, this tick species is becoming a greater concern in the Northeast as more people are being diagnosed with the diseases they carry, as well as the odd, telltale allergy to meat.
“We do get them here occasionally in the state,” said Griffin Dill, pest management specialist for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “What we’re trying to figure out is if we have any stable breeding populations.”
In Maine, reports of the diseases the lone star tick transmits have increased in recent years.
In 2017, for example, 20 cases of ehrlichiosis, a bacterial infection the lone star tick transmits that can cause life-threatening breathing difficulty and bleeding disorders, were reported in Maine, up from four cases in 2016 and just one case in 2015. And another lone star tick infection, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, sickened three people in Maine in 2017, four in 2016 and just one in 2015. If not caught early, this disease can lead to limb amputation, hearing loss, paralysis and mental disability.
The strange meat allergy attributed to the lone star tick has also cropped up in Maine in recent years.
“We have a had a couple of instances we know of of people coming down with this meat allergy in the state of Maine,” Dill said. “It’s still this big question mark about whether they were bit by a lone star tick here in Maine or if it was travel-related.”
When a lone star tick is sent by a member of the public to the UMaine Cooperative Extension Tick Identification Lab to be identified, Dill and other pest management experts try to follow up with the sender of the tick to pinpoint where it came from. They then do field sampling at the location to see if they can find more lone star ticks at different life stages.
“Thus far, we haven’t been able to find more,” Dill said. “We’re thinking they’re coming into the state in the spring by migratory birds, then are getting dropped off throughout the state.”
Breeding populations of the lone star tick has recently been found in Massachusetts and Connecticut, so probably it’s only a matter of time before they set roots in Maine, Dill said, based on the movement of other tick species northward.
Though this tick has been found in Texas, that’s not where it derives its common name. “Lone star” refers to the small white star shape visible on the backs of female lone star ticks. A member of the arachnid family, this particular species of tick varies in color from reddish brown to tan and tends to have a rounder body shape than most tick species.
When comparing them to Maine’s more abundant deer and dog ticks, this particular tick species has a couple alarming characteristics that set them apart.
“They’re a bit more of an aggressive species,” Dill said. “The deer and dog tick are really relatively passive. They travel up and down vegetation questing for whatever goes by. But lone star ticks will actually move in response to stimuli. If they sense carbon dioxide or movement, that sort of thing, they’ll actually travel in that direction.
“It’s not like they’re flying through the woods,” he clarified, “but they will travel horizontally across a landscape and dog and deer ticks aren’t like that.”
Then there’s the meat allergy.
“The allergy is kind of interesting,” Dill said. “In order for the ticks to cause this allergy, they have to first feed on a different type of mammal in a previous life cycle to pick up a specific carbohydrate that’s in all mammalian cells other than humans and apes.”
The carbohydrate is called alpha-gal, and when the lone star tick feeds on a human, this sugar can trigger an allergic reaction. Then, the next time the person consumes red meat — which contains alpha-gal — the reaction returns. And what’s more, it has a delayed onset, making it difficult for people to pinpoint what’s causing the reaction.
“It’s delayed somewhere in the six- to 10-hour range,” Dill said. “So if you have a burger for dinner, all the sudden you wake up at 3 a.m. in the morning and you’re going into anaphylaxis.”
The discovery of the allergy and its cause is fairly recent, Dill said. A lot is still unknown about it. There’s a hope it will fade over time, as well as a concern that it will worsen with each tick bite. In the ever-expanding body of research about ticks and the diseases they carry, it’s just one small piece of a much bigger problem.
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