Survival Update

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Citizen Scientists Help Track Parasitic Deer Flies

There is a nasty little insect out there called the deer ked. This is a very distinctive fly because it is so unusual looking. The deer ked has a flattened body, grasping front legs, and wings that it drops off occasionally and then grows new ones. These flies are parasites on deer and have been known to bite humans also. It is believed that the deer ked may transmit a disease-causing bacteria to those that it bites.

Because these flies can possibly transmit harmful diseases to deer and maybe even humans, scientists need to keep a close eye on them. To do so, they have to know exactly where the fly lives so they can watch the deer in those areas for signs of disease. Although it was known that the deer keds lived in a few places in the northeastern US, scientists were not sure what their range is exactly, and there is just no way for them to check all over the northeast on their own. So, what is the answer for these scientists who are trying to find all of the areas where the deer ked lives? The answer is a citizen scientist!

A citizen scientist is a member of the public who helps scientists and researchers by collecting data for them. Throughout the world, citizen scientists are collecting information on insects, water quality, air pollution, wildlife populations, the weather, rocks and minerals, and even astronomic events like meteor showers. In the case of the parasitic deer ked, scientists wanted help from citizens of the northeastern US as well as Canada to locate and report on the presence of the flies.

If you are wanting to find out where a biting deer fly lives, then you obviously want to look at places where the deer themselves live, right? And who pays close attention to deer populations? You guessed it…hunters! Researchers asked deer hunters to become citizen scientists. They gave the hunters needed information about the insects as well as deer ked collection kits. Hunters and amateur photographers were asked to keep an eye out for them and snap pictures whenever they could, which they could share with the researchers along with information about the location where they were found. Fortunately, the deer ked is a very distinctive-looking insect, looking very different from a typical fly. This makes them easy for a non-scientist to identify.

The project was a resounding success. In some areas of the country, particularly Pennsylvania, the deer keds were so numerous they sometimes ran up and down the hunters’ arms when they were field dressing a deer. Thanks to their citizen scientists, researchers now know the deer ked lives in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Missouri. Previous to the study, it was not known that the flies lived outside the northeast. The newly collected data shows the deer ked’s range stretches further north and east than previously reported. It has also been learned that these flies not only bite deer and the occasional human, but also moose, elk, and domestic animals.

The next step for scientists is to collect and screen hundreds of deer keds for dangerous pathogens. They will dissect some insects to screen the gut and the salivary glands separately. This approach will give a good indication of whether deer keds could transmit disease-causing pathogens through bites. If it turns out that the deer ked does indeed have a dangerous bite, it will be possible to warn the people who live in the areas where they occur as well as begin possible eradication programs. All of this, thanks to citizen scientists!