When it comes to ticks, Missouri's not too hot, not too cold, very humid and has lots of wildlife - which means lots of potential hosts for disease-carrying pests.
The Missouri Department of Conservation is partnering with A.T. Still University to map where tick species occur and which pathogens they're carrying over the next two years. They're asking people to mail in rather than disposing of the ticks they find in woods, fields, yards and other outdoor environments this summer.
Deb Hudman, senior research associate in Still's microbiology and immunology department, said she hopes the findings will raise awareness of tick-borne diseases and help folks be better prepared.
"There was a survey done in southeast Missouri," she said, "that demonstrated that less than half of the respondents knew of any tick-borne diseases other than Lyme disease, and over 75% had no concern about contracting a disease."
Missouri is home to at least four human-biting, disease-carrying ticks. Nationwide, ticks cause more human illness than any other pest. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mild winters and longer warm seasons caused by climate change may be making conditions more hospitable for them.
Known instances of tick-borne illness have increased in recent years in Missouri - from Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ehrlichia to Heartland virus and Bourbon virus. Hudman said this may be because now, there are more ticks spreading pathogens - or because health-care providers have gotten better at identifying them when they occur.
"If a patient comes in with flu-like symptoms during the summer months," she said, "pandemic aside, they should be thinking tick-borne diseases."
Recommendations to avoid ticks include wearing long pants and long sleeves, using insect repellant and removing any ticks you find right away, using tweezers. But if found, Hudman encouraged folks to place the tick - or ticks, if all from the same day and same location - in a zip-top bag with a piece of damp paper towel or cotton ball, fill out a submission form and mail the bag and form to A.T. Still University in Kirksville.