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America’s Next Top Entomology Outreach Model

two mannequins resembling female humans with light skin and long brown hair, each wearing a white t-shirt, shown here from the waist up.

At education and outreach events, University of Wisconsin entomologists have recruited a pair of mannequins as life-size visual aids for people to practice checking for ticks. Meet Valerie (left) and Vanessa (right). (Photo by Xia Lee, Ph.D.)

By Tela Zembsch and Xia Lee, Ph.D.

Xia Lee, Ph.D.

Xia Lee, Ph.D.

Tela Zembsch

Tela Zembsch

One thing you can say about Vanessa and Valerie, the newest lab members of the Medical Entomology Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is that they catch everyone’s eye when they enter a room. That’s because Vanessa and Valerie are life-sized mannequins harboring blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis). These ticks transmit the pathogen that causes an estimated 300,000 cases of Lyme disease in the United States annually.

The use of repellents like DEET and picaridin are highly recommended for anyone looking to enjoy the outdoors during tick season to prevent tick bites. But, even if you use repellents, it’s also important to do a full body check for ticks after being outdoors.

mannequin resembling a female human with long brown hair, wearing blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and white sneakers. circles appear as follows: shirt collar (blue), armpit (magenta), hip (magenta), waist (magenta), groin area (purple), lower leg (yellow), ankle (magenta), shoe heel (yellow), shoe toe (magenta).

Vanessa is one of two new members of the Medical Entomology Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Placed on the mannequin are 16 dead blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis), allowing members of the public at outreach events to get realistic practice searching for ticks on their bodies. Shown here, circles represent tick locations on the front of the mannequin. Yellow, magenta, blue, and purple represent larvae, nymph, adult male, and adult female placements, respectively. (Photo by Xia Lee, Ph.D.)

However, a recent study by our University of Wisconsin colleagues found that roughly 50 percent of participants in the study could not correctly identify blacklegged ticks when shown an epoxy resin petri dish filled with ticks and other insects. Add in clothes, different skin tones, and other skin markings, and this identification can get even trickier. Training people to have the right “search image” is also challenging: Photographs or graphics often fail to convey the true size of the ticks, their different life stages, or the difficulty of spotting a tick on your own body.

So, how could we safely simulate finding a tick on a person? We purchased Vanessa as a substitute for a human to assess tick acquisition sites on people but quickly realized that Vanessa could be used to educate people and increase awareness of ticks and tick-borne diseases.

At various extension and outreach events, Vanessa and Valerie allow people to train their eye and to practice how and where they would check for ticks on themselves and others. Dead ticks are glued to commonly reported attachment areas: the hairline, back of the knees, and under waistbands, to name a few. People can readily see what it looks like to have a tick tucked away in an armpit and how they’re easier to spot on light-colored clothes compared to darker colors. They can also practice spotting nymphs, which are notoriously difficult to find compared to adult ticks because of their small size.

We are currently working with the Vectorborne Disease Program at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services along with colleagues at Michigan State University and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on ways to deploy and assess the effectiveness of this new educational and outreach tool. Although not published yet, our latest survey of the general public’s ability to perform tick checks using Vanessa and Valerie showed that, on average, most participants were only able to find 37 percent of the ticks that were glued to Vanessa and Valerie when given five minutes to search for 16 blacklegged ticks (two larvae, 10 nymphs, two adult males, and two adult females), and not a single individual out of 97 participants found all the ticks. This clearly highlights the knowledge gap that we are hoping the mannequins can bridge.

Aside from effectively translating a public health message into a real-life scenario, the mannequins also tend to create quite a buzz at events. Beginning in the fall of 2022, we have deployed the mannequins at a variety of outreach events, from community science festivals to middle school field trips. They stand out among the sea of brochures and posters and create a talking point everywhere they go. Several people have approached our booth saying they heard about the mannequins and wanted to see them for themselves. We have become used to answering to the name “mannequin wranglers.”

Tela Zembsch, BS, MS, is a research specialist working in the Paskewitz and Bartholomay labs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Midwest Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Disease. Email: Xia Lee, Ph.D., is a public health entomologist in the Vectorborne, Respiratory, and Invasive Diseases Unit at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and previously a researcher in the Paskewitz Lab in the Department of Entomology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Email:


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