Ticks are feared throughout the states because of the diseases they carry, such as Lymes disease in the East and Rocky Mountains and spotted fever in the West. Now, thanks to a growing population of certain tick species, contracting one of these scary diseases may become more common.
There are mainly two kinds of ticks: specialists and generalists. Specialists primarily feed on only one species, but generalists don’t discriminate when choosing victims.
Helen Esser, a researcher studying ticks in the Panama rainforests, hypothesizes that cutting down forests and degrading nature actually increases the likelihood that generalists will survive. This is due to a correlated decrease in the variety of mammals in the forest ecosystem. Since specialists can only feed on some species, a decrease in species diversity means fewer specialists will have a food source, while generalists would simply be able to move on to another species.
In comparison to specialist ticks, generalists also carry more diseases. Since they prey on a wider variety of animals, they are exposed to more viruses and bacteria. Also, because of their indiscriminate diet, most generalists would bite humans and consequentially spread disease to us, too.
Part of Esser's research is to examine biodiversity in the forest and the rate at which it is decreasing. Her research indeed confirms that as this ecosystem is comprised and nature is destroyed, generalist ticks are thriving, therefore putting humans at a greater risk of getting an infected bite.
“Habitat destruction, fragmentation…these things are backfiring on us,” Esser said, “because in many cases they’re paving the way for human infection.” While unexpected perhaps, ticks might just prove to be another reason for humans to go green and start protecting our Earth’s ecosystems.