Woodstock native returns to collect ticks

By Katie Demeria

WOODSTOCK — U.S. Army Capt. Tony John always inspects his tick flag very carefully. He looks over each speck of dirt, then suddenly stops on one dot.

“There’s one,” he said, nudging at the tiny tick with his finger.

John helped build the Effinger Trail in Riverview Park in the mid 1990s. On Friday, he returned to the same trail for a different reason.

A 1990 Central High School graduate, John has been in the military for 14 years. He is currently pursuing a master of science and public health degree with the Uniform Services University in Bethesda, Maryland.

John is working on a research project with the Walter Reed Biosystematics Unit and the Smithsonian Institute to identify ticks. He is collecting as many ticks as possible from various sites. He chose to go home to Woodstock for part of his research.

Ticks, John said, pose a serious threat in terms of spreading pathogens, especially in the northern hemisphere. They are some of the most dangerous in the world, second only to mosquitoes.

By identifying ticks and understanding what types live in various parts of the world, researchers are one step further to combating pathogens carried by ticks. The work is expected to benefit American soldiers all over the world, he pointed out.

“The main focus is keeping soldiers healthy,” he said.

When John’s work is completed, he will be an army entomologist, a goal that incorporates a lifelong interest in the environment. He attended Virginia Tech and studied forestry and wildlife.

Working with arthropods like ticks, he added, is especially important due to the variety of pathogens they spread.

“Arthropods have been one of the causes of death in the world for millennia,” he said.

Lyme disease is one of the most commonly known pathogens that ticks carry, but others include tickborne encephalitis, tularemia and ehrlichiosis. John added that ticks could carry even more pathogens that are not yet known.

Identifying the ticks is done in a variety of ways, John said. He can use pictorial keys, which are based off their morphological features, as well as molecular morphology, which involves extracting DNA from the tick. He also screens for the pathogens they may carry.

His weeklong trip to Woodstock was relatively lucrative, he said — within two days he collected close to 80 ticks. Many of those were found in the woods of Riverview Park.

John uses several tools to collect the arthropods, including a tick flag, which is a piece of flannel attached to a long pole, and a tick drag, a larger piece of flannel that he drags along the ground.

But he also pointed out that ticks will grab onto legs, so wearing white, disposable pants is a good way to collect them.

John enjoys his work because it is so engaging — he is not tied to a desk. He offered similar advice to others looking to join the military.

“Pick something that will challenge you,” he said. “Make sure you have fun. If you’re not having fun, why do it?”

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com