UVM researchers hope fungus can save region's moose from tick infestation

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Could spreading a fungus help manage soaring populations of winter ticks?

The insects, also known as moose ticks, are killing off young moose in our region. A 2018 study found that those ticks were responsible for an unprecedented 70 percent death rate among moose calves in northern New England over a three-year period. Now, researchers are turning to nature to fight nature.

Stepping into Cheryl Frank Sullivan's lab at the University of Vermont may make your skin crawl. Ticks are everywhere -- more than 30,000 of them -- in vials and petri dishes.

"This right here is the blood-engorged female," said Sullivan, showing off one container.

Another container is crawling with winter tick larvae. "Probably like maybe 3,000," Sullivan said. Her goal is to figure out the best way to kill them. The avid outdoorswoman has a healthy respect for the bloodsucking pest. "The tick is a survivor."

But their research found that a particular fungus shows some promise as a weapon against growing moose tick populations. In the lab she's found that it kills 37 to 100 percent of the larvae it infects. The idea is that it could be grown on rice and then spread into areas that have a higher concentration of winter ticks. "This could just be an option -- a tool to have in the pest management toolbox," she said.

It's not just the ticks inside the lab. They also have an outside set up with branches holding clusters of larvae looking for a new host. "They're climbing up the sides because that's what they want to do. They want to go up. That's what they're programmed to do," Sullivan said.

And in the fall, when the ticks sense vibrations of their host approaching, this tick bomb gets ready to latch on the moment a moose brushes by. "They just grab ahold of each other and they just go in these giant clumps like this," Sullivan said.

The ambush strategy leaves moose with thousands of ticks, which drain their blood over the course of the winter, making them weak and even killing them. Some dead moose calves were infested with about 47,000 of the parasites.

That's where Sullivan's lab's research comes in. If the fungus shows promise in killing ticks in the lab, down the line she hopes to find a spot to do a pilot project in the field. But that's easier said than done. "The ticks drop off all across the landscape, so it's really hard to pinpoint where the ticks are," Sullivan said.

With two years of reseach ahead, Sullivan's work is still far away from a tick treatment.