On a sunny day at the beginning of tick season, Thomas Daniels, Ph.D., and Richard Falco, Ph.D., step out for a quick jaunt in the scenic environs of Fordham’s Louis Calder Center Biological Field Station.
Dragging a 9-square-foot sheet of white corduroy along the side of the road, they snare a half-dozen black-legged ticks on the cloth at a rate of more than one per minute.
“They’re resting on top of the blades of grass and waving their front legs, just looking for something to carry them off,” says Daniels, an associate research scientist in the biology department.
Something like a deer, perhaps? The leg of a dog? Or a human ankle? Yes, he says, pretty much anything they can latch onto that will provide a blood meal.
But the ticks that Falco and Daniels catch are headed for an odd form of immortality at Calder’s Routh House, a sprawling, two-story brick structure that hosts Fordham’s Vector Ecology Laboratory (VEL). As co-directors of the VEL, they oversee University-funded research on diseases carried by ticks and mosquitoes.
Some of the ticks will be painted for a mark-release-recapture project. Others will be tested for the presence of Lyme and other diseases. One may end up on a slide as a reference sample. Still others will simply be counted and then stored in ethanol.
Yes, there is state and regional surveillance of New York ticks and mosquitoes, and Falco, Daniels and their staff are the ones who handle it.
Since 2007, the Calder Center has held a contract with the New York State Department of Health to act as its Regional Medical Entomology Laboratory (MEL) for nine counties in the metropolitan region, by far the state’s most populous area.
The contract, which runs through 2011, designates Calder as one of New York’s focal points for vector-borne disease research and related public health issues.
As a state regional medical entomologist, Falco coordinates the sampling of ticks and mosquitoes in the lower Hudson Valley. He is assigned to the counties of Sullivan, Ulster, Duchess, Putnam, Orange, Rockland and Westchester, as well as Nassau and Suffolk on Long Island. He oversees four services:
• conducting routine surveillance on ticks and mosquitoes, as well as the various pathogens that infect them, and reporting that information to the state;
• finding ways to detect and control the risks of diseases carried by ticks and mosquitoes;
• offering instruction to undergraduate and graduate students and physicians (Falco also teaches at New York Medical College);
• providing outreach and assistance to the county health departments on ticks, mosquitoes and other vector-borne diseases, which includes being response-ready in the case of a public outbreak of a disease such as the West Nile virus.
“Perhaps that is our most serious obligation,” Falco said. “If there is a public health emergency of that nature, we would stop whatever we are doing, assist our assigned counties with their trapping efforts and help coordinate the research.”
Such emergencies are rare, he added, but one happened in the summer of 1999, with the sudden outbreak of West Nile virus in all five boroughs and the surrounding region. That year, 62 people became ill and seven people died from a new vector-borne disease spread by mosquitoes that had bitten infected birds. Birds were implicated in the transmission cycle when thousands were found dead in New York. This was the first time West Nile had been reported in North America; today, it is endemic in the United States.
“The area north of New York City is a prime mixing zone between people and vectors,” Falco said. “You’ve got suburban and rural habitats where you find ticks and mosquitoes. You’ve got an urban area teeming with people. Everything comes together here.
“The state saw Calder’s location and the VEL’s track record, and realized it was an advantageous spot for a state entomology lab,” he said.
In the Routh House labs, a person can’t wander too far without being confronted by bugs—living, dead, or immortalized in popular culture. The hallway is decorated with movie posters from some of the mutant bug genre classics: Arachnophobia, Tarantula. Sitting atop of two filing cabinets is a “Flea Circus” game, circa 1960.
“Tom picked that up at a flea market,” Falco said jokingly.
Besides employing Falco, the state pays for two research technicians: John Kokas and Vanessa Vinci. Kokas’ area of the lab is inhabited by, among other things, a live tarantula and an aquarium filled with prehistoric-looking Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches.
“I keep them just for fun,” he said.
Kokas is completely serious, however, when it comes to the business of mosquitoes. In fact, Falco refers to him as “a real bug man.” He is responsible for collecting, identifying and mounting some 40 to 50 different mosquito species found all over the state.
Kokas keeps a New York state insect specimen reference collection in several wooden cabinets housing glass display cases—from the smallest mosquito (Uranotaenia) to the largest (Toxorhynchites) as well as a host of beetles, biting flies, bees, wasps, lice and bed bugs for educational and identification purposes.
When local health departments prepare to do their annual mosquito surveillance each spring, they often send their personnel to the MEL to train with Kokas.
“You need good clean intact specimens in order to train people what to look for,” Kokas said. “So we bring them here to show them the mountings. Once they study them, they can usually go out and I.D. them.”
Through his microscope, Kokas displayed the beautiful side of ugly: up close, an Uranotaenia sapphirina mosquito is ornamented with fine iridescent blue stripes on its body and gossamer wings.
To catch mosquitoes, Kokas uses a wooden box painted black, facing west. When the sun is out, Kokas said, biting mosquitoes go wherever they can to stay in the shade. Trapping for counting purposes is also done with light traps and gravid traps for egg-bearing females.
MEL staffers work closely with the state to monitor medically important insect populations and share that information. Falco reports regularly to Albany on the site totals from his counties. Twice a year he sends samples of ticks from his counties to be tested for agents of Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections.
Lyme disease is the biggest vector-borne disease in the country, and a quarter of the nation’s cases occur right here in New York state. Approximately 25 percent of the nymphal ticks and 50 percent of the adult ticks that Daniels and Falco encounter are infected with the Lyme disease agent.
“From this surveillance work, we get a handle on what the infection rates are throughout the state and how they are changing over time,” Falco said.
As an additional service to surrounding counties, during the active tick season—May to October—Fordham’s VEL posts a once-weekly Tick Index online. The index, which went active on Memorial Day weekend, estimates the risk of being bitten by a nymphal or adult deer tick based on the density of their population during the week.
Daniels and VEL staffers do research on how disease spreads among ticks, which animals they feed on, and how temperature affects their lifecycle; all research conducted by the VEL is also available for use by New York state.
“The beauty of melding the two institutions—Fordham and the regional Medical Entomology Lab—is the way we can join hands,” Falco said. “The state is interested in using our research to reduce risk and maintain public health, while the University, with its academic perspective, is interested in the basic ecology of vector-borne disease systems.”
There is, of course, some slight risk in working with diseased insects, said Falco, who was one of the first scientists to earn a doctorate on the study of the tick known as Ixodes scapularis. Over the years both he and Daniels have contracted Lyme disease, more than just once.
“But that’s the nature of the job,” he said.