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Entomological Society of America

Lyme Disease-Spreading Ticks Now in Almost Half of U.S. Counties

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Entomological Society of America

Doctors depend on scientific research to inform the diagnoses they make and the treatments they recommend. When that information is out of date, the doctors and their patients are at a real disadvantage. That’s certainly the case with Lyme disease research. A new report released this morning shows that Lyme disease-spreading ticks can now be found in nearly half of all U.S. counties—a 50 percent increase since the last prevalence study in 1998.

Rebecca Eisen is a biologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When she realized that the last national survey of tick distribution had been completed nearly 20 years ago, she decided it was time for an update. To ensure that they could compare their results to those from 1998, Eisen and her colleagues used the same techniques employed in the earlier study. They tabulated reported sightings of the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) and the less-common western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus), both commonly known as deer ticks.

Blacklegged tick. Image credit: Gary Alpert, Harvard University, Bugwood.org.

The results were alarming. The range of I. scapularis has expanded into 45 percent of U.S. counties. That’s a 50 percent increase from 1998, when the tick could only be found in 30 percent of counties. The tick’s territory increased most dramatically in northern states and remained fairly stable in the South. Eisen and her colleagues also tracked the range of the less-common I. pacificus, which seems to have remained relatively steady. In 1998, western blacklegged ticks were reported in 3.4 percent of counties; by 2015, that number had only risen to 3.6 percent.

The map on top is from 1998, and the one below it is from 2015. Red indicates a county where I. scapular is is established, and blue indicates that it has been reported. Green indicates a county where I. pacificus is established, and yellow indicates that is has been reported. Image credit: Entomological Society of America.

While the majority of patients with Lyme disease can make a complete recovery if they’re treated soon after infection, the research is still vital. As it is now, diagnosing the disease can be lengthy and complicated. A bullseye rash is a pretty good sign that a person has been infected, but many people never develop a rash. The most common symptoms of Lyme—fever, headache, and fatigue—are easily mistaken for symptoms of the flu or a viral infection, and blood tests for Lyme disease are notoriously imprecise.

This research could help doctors spot the disease faster, by knowing if their patients have been exposed to Lyme disease-spreading ticks.

“This study shows that the distribution of Lyme disease vectors has changed substantially over the last nearly two decades and highlights areas where risk for human exposure to ticks has changed during that time,” Eisen said in a press release.

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20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
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The Peppa Pig Episode Kids in Australia Can't See
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20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Kids in Australia have reason to be wary of eight-legged creatures. The continent is home to some pretty dangerous spiders, including deadly funnel-web spiders, which have strong enough fangs to bite through a toenail. Australia's spiders have claimed a new victim, though: a few episodes of the animated British show Peppa Pig.

As Slate reports, an episode of the show has been pulled from the broadcast lineup in Australia for urging kids not to be afraid of spiders. The episode, "Mister Skinnylegs," first aired in 2004, and had already been banned from public broadcasting in 2012, but it recently re-ran on Nick Jr. through the Australian cable service Foxtel. Another episode featuring the same spider character, "Spider Web," is also banned in the country.

In "Mister Skinny Legs," Peppa Pig's brother George finds a spider in the sink and becomes its friend. Peppa is scared at first, but her father tells her, "There's no need to be afraid. Spiders are very, very small, and they can't hurt you."

Arguing that Down Under, spiders can, in fact, hurt you, parents complained that the episode was inappropriate for impressionable Australian viewers. After the outcry following the August 25 re-run, Nick Jr. has agreed to pull the episode from rotation in Australia.

While Australia does have some scary spiders, the risk may be a bit overblown. In a recent study, researchers found zero deaths from spider bites in the country between 2000 and 2013. (There was one fatality in 2016, but it was the first in 37 years.) Almost 12,000 people did end up in the hospital with spider bites during those years, though. On the other hand, the same study found that more Australians were killed by horses during that time period than all of the country's venomous creatures combined. Still, it's perhaps best to avoid telling kids to make friends with black widows. Watch the episode below at your own risk.

[h/t Slate]

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Tom Houslay, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC 2.0
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Scientists Catch Tiny Jumping Spiders Eating Frogs and Lizards
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Tom Houslay, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC 2.0

Small, but mighty: Some jumping spiders can overpower and devour their larger, cold-blooded, would-be predators, according to scientists writing in the Journal of Arachnology.

Biologist Martin Nyffeler at the University of Basel in Switzerland spends his days studying arachnid and insect eating habits. Over the last few years, he and his colleagues have made some astounding discoveries. For one, not only do spiders consume millions of tons of bugs each year, but they also eat fish, and bats, and plants. With a palate this broad, a hunger this big, and a ferocity to match, why wouldn't little spiders occasionally order off the reptile and amphibian menu? The researchers decided to search the scientific literature for reports of spider-on-frog-or-lizard action.

They found plenty. Their search unearthed one sighting in Costa Rica and eight separate instances in seven different Florida counties, all initiated by a single species. The regal jumping spider may weigh less than one-tenth of an ounce, but that apparently doesn't stop it from going after frogs and small lizards called anoles.

One report came from local nature blogger Loret Setters, who watched a Cuban tree frog disappear into a regal jumping spider's mouth.

"He was staring me down, like, 'You're next!'" Setters told National Geographic. "I was completely shocked."

A small jumping spider eats a dead frog.
A female regal jumping spider goes to town on a Cuban frog.

This remarkable reversal of the predator-prey relationship is made possible by jumping spiders' specialized hunting skills. Unlike most spiders, which spin webs and then lie in wait, jumping spiders stalk their prey like tigers. They have incredibly good vision and decent hearing, and they're all venomous.

Behavioral ecologist Thomas C. Jones of East Tennessee State University was not involved with the study but says spiders likely only go after frogs and lizards when easier meals are scarce.

"They do tend to get bolder as they get hungrier," he said.

[h/t National Geographic News]

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