by Jodi LaMarco
The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies is an independent research center that has been tackling regional and global environmental problems for more than 30 years. Scientists at the institute in Millbrook have investigated issues ranging from the health of the Hudson River watershed to climate change. Combined with a stellar community outreach program and learning opportunities for pre-K kids to undergrads, the organization is making progress that stands to impact the lives of Hudson Valley residents in a big way.
Just this April, the institute received a $5 million grant from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation toward a large-scale study aimed at fighting Lyme disease at its source. Conducted in partnership with Bard College, the study will be performed in 24 neighborhoods in Dutchess County over a five-year period. During that time, researchers will be experimenting with two methods of environmentally safe tick control. The first strategy will use a natural fungus sprayed on vegetation, where it will kill ticks seeking animal hosts. Another method will employ strategically placed boxes to attract small mammals. When animals such as chipmunks and mice enter the boxes, the rodents will receive a dose of fipronil, a pesticide which is also used to eliminate ticks on dogs and cats. “Over many years of careful research, we’ve gained a much better understanding of environmental conditions that regulate the number of infected ticks,” says Lori Quillen, Director of Communications at Cary. “It turns out that mice are a really important part of the problem. They transfer the bacteria that causes Lyme disease to ticks. It really takes the heat off of deer.”
In addition to pinpointing one of the major culprits responsible for the spread of Lyme disease, the institute has also identified an unsung hero: the possum. As it turns out, possums do a great job of hoovering up thousands of the pesky arachnids. “By virtue of doing that grooming behavior, they make the landscape safer for us,” explains Quillen.
Environmental research is just one component of the institute’s mission. Cary also offers one-week summer ecology camp programs which allow kids to learn about environmental science and the area’s natural history as they explore the institute’s 2,000-acre campus. Once open only to students in grades 2 through 7, the camp was recently expanded to include pre-K and grades 8 through 12. College students have the opportunity to take part in the Research Experience program, where participants perform hands-on ecological research with Cary Institute scientists. Many of the program’s alumni later go on to careers in the environment. “They’re a very inspired group,” says Quillen.
As for the rest of the public, hiking trails on the institute’s property are open from April to October. Cary also hosts a popular monthly lecture series featuring talks by environmental experts from all over the world. “We have events where we have to turn people away. People in this region, they’re just really engaged with the environment,” Quillen says. “We’re fortunate for that.”