Science Students Visit Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies

By Cait Ward '08
Science Teacher

Education Program Leader Shelly Forster leads the students on a one-mile hike to check out bait sites.On Nov.13, Berkshire's Environmental Science classes headed out to the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY to learn more about the nonprofit environmental research organization and the neighborhood-level work that they have been doing on ticks. For the last twenty-five years, the Institute has been studying how expanding tick populations, climate change, and forest fragmentation are contributing to the complex ecology of Lyme disease. With the incidence of Lyme disease increasing in New England, the expanding tick population has been a subject of note for our students and faculty who are spending time up on the Mountain.

Education Program Leader Shelly Forster, who had visited Berkshire two weeks prior to introduce the "Tick Climate Project" to students, greeted the classes. Forster reviewed some of the major ideas and facts that they had learned during their initial visit, and discussed how forest fragmentation contributes to the incidence of Lyme disease. Researchers have found that in those landscapes that can support higher biodiversity, there is a lower incidence of Lyme disease.

"We strive to make ecology accessible to students by engaging in data collection, meeting scientists and research assistants, and making connections to locally and personally relevant issues like Lyme disease and water quality," she said.

Forster had set up two testing sites for the students to observe—one in a field, and the other in the forest.

Forster had set up two testing sites for the students to observe—one in a field, and the other in the forest. Each baited site was set up with track plates and animal cameras. Students observed that the site located in the field had a low rate of biodiversity, as the bait was left untouched, and only one squirrel track could be identified on the track plate. The bait in the forest, however, was completely gone, the track plates were full of animal tracks, and when analyzing the animal cameras, the students found that deer, mice, squirrels, and opossums had all been visitors to the site.

Back in the Institute classroom, two Project Assistants Meg Schierer and Dio Mikros gave an overview of their research with the "Tick Climate Project." They explained how as our climate continues to change, it is predicted that populations of ticks in hotspots will only continue to increase. By demonstrating how they check soil samples for ticks under the microscope, they offered a lens into the work that they do in the lab. Sixth former Louie Meeks shared, "It was valuable to have the opportunity to speak with multiple young researchers who are just out of college as they gave insight on how students may approach entering that field." To wrap up the time at the Institute, the students discussed and outlined a plan on how they could sample the mammal diversity of the Berkshire School campus to estimate tick populations.

A few fun facts Berkshire students learned about ticks on their field trip:

  • Opossums can eat up to 5,000 ticks per year!
  • All ticks are born lyme-free.
  • There is no Lyme disease vaccine for humans, but there is one for dogs.