New Brunswick

How does Lyme disease spread? The answer may lie in the hearts of grouse

Researchers at the University of New Brunswick are hoping that hunters will bring them the hearts of game birds that could allow them to better understand how a disease is spreading in New Brunswick.

University of New Brunswick forestry students ask hunters to collect bird hearts for disease study

Researchers at UNB want hunters to collect hearts from spruce and ruffed grouse to determine if they are vector species for Lyme disease. (CBC)

A Fredericton lab is on the hunt for bird hearts. 

Researchers at the University of New Brunswick are hoping hunters will bring in hearts of game birds that could allow them to better understand how a disease is spreading in New Brunswick.

"Any hunters interested in helping us out would be appreciated," said Joseph Nocera, UNB's assistant professor of forestry and environmental management.

"The reason we're doing this is to look for infection rates of Lyme disease."  

Nocera said his lab was part of the research team that earlier recorded the move of Lyme disease into more northern counties earlier this year, and he suspects birds may be responsible. 

A man with a beard smiling.
Joseph Nocera, assistant professor of forestry and environmental management, is putting a call out for hunters to bring in hearts from hunted spruce and ruffed grouse. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"Migratory birds are long-distance transporters of the tick that carries Lyme disease," said Nocera. "We also know that the preferred end-host for black-legged ticks are large mammals like deer, but we don't know who moves ticks around in the younger stages of the ticks' life. 

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"And ruffed grouse inhabits habitats that the ticks also prefer. And so we've made the prediction that they are a local vector, maybe moving them around on the scale of ones to tens of kilometres." 

As a result, Norcera has put the call out to bird hunters on social media asking to collect the hearts from ruffed and spruce grouse game birds. 

So far the lab has received about 50 bird hearts, but more than 120 will be needed to ensure the sample size of the experiment is large enough to produce reliable results. 

The team is predicting that the ruffed grouse is the carrier species but need the hearts of the other bird species to compare infection rates.  

"We're using spruce grouse as kind of a control species," said Douglas Munn, a graduate student in forestry and environmental management, is working on the grouse experiment. "They are less likely to be in the areas I've been finding black-legged ticks based on the vegetative characteristics of their habitat." 

A grouse heart is only the size of a thumb, and Nocera says his lab will need well over 100 of them for the study to be successful. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"We have a few spruce grouse hearts," Munn said. "But I'd like to have many, many more." 

Hunters willing to contribute parts of their game to Nocera's lab are asked to freeze the hearts, label them with where they were collected and contact them through UNB.  

The lab will pick up the donated organs throughout New Brunswick. 


Shane Fowler


Shane Fowler has been a CBC journalist based in Fredericton since 2013.