Researchers Head to New York City Parks to Gather Data on Tick Exposure

Columbia researchers are conducting a major survey to measure urban tick presence and how humans respond to them.

Christopher D. Shea
June 12, 2024

The chances of getting a tick bite in New York City—especially in the densely populated urban core—are relatively low, but can be significant in some urban forests. In the summertime, when city residents scatter to areas where ticks and Lyme disease are prevalent, whether it’s the woods, a lakefront, or on the grassy paths that lead to ocean beaches, the risk increases.

To better understand the effects of this exposure, Columbia researchers are heading to New York City and Western Long Island parks this month to measure the presence of ticks and enroll residents in a behavioral survey. The survey aims to better understand survey participants’ outdoor behavior and whether it puts them in close contact with ticks.

Apoorva Sakthivel, a research assistant on the survey, inspects a corduroy cloth for ticks. (Christopher D. Shea)

The survey will also be sent to a total of around 60,000 residents of New York City and Boston.

“The data from thousands of participants in this survey will enrich our understanding of how and where people encounter ticks,” said Maria Diuk-Wasser, a Columbia professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, who designed and is leading the study.

Survey participants will fill in a survey assessing their travel practices, behavior, and attitudes and will also be asked to sign up to the Tick App, which was developed by Columbia in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to learn about tick safety and track their tick exposure. With survey participants’ permission, the app will collect data on users’ geolocation to identify their exposure levels.

Rob Gullery drags a corduroy cloth through vegetation in Prospect Park. After dragging the cloth for ten meters, Gullery and the other researchers inspected them for ticks. (Christopher D. Shea)

In addition to registering participants in the survey, researchers are collecting tick samples in major parks across New York City to understand the prevalence of Lyme carriers in the city’s urban core.

In the first week of June, when tick presence was expected to be at its peak, research assistants from Diuk-Wasser’s lab set out across the city’s parks gathering the first tranche of data for the survey. The researchers aimed to better understand the number and species of ticks present in the parks.

Lindsey Abramson, a research assistant and incoming Columbia Mailman School of Public Health student, logs information on her findings. (Christopher D. Shea)

Among the parks they visited were Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, where they trawled the ground with a corduroy drag cloth, inspecting it for ticks every 10 meters. The corduroy material is designed to be a proxy for animal fur, deliberately attractive to ticks. They found no ticks in Prospect Park, which was expected because the wildlife (especially deer) that carry ticks and become unwitting vectors for Lyme rarely, if ever, enter the park. But in Highland Park in Queens, the group found two black-legged ticks, which carry Lyme disease.

Prospect Park's Long Meadow shimmers in the late spring heat. (Christopher D. Shea)

In the coming days, researchers from Diuk-Wasser’s lab will return to the parks to enroll park visitors in surveys to better understand the public's knowledge of the threat of ticks and its affect on people's behavior outdoors.

“We’re confident that by the end of the summer, we’ll have a much deeper understanding of both the tick presence in the city’s parks, and how residents do (or don’t) take action to protect themselves,” Diuk-Wasser said.