A sampling of 2,000 hunter-harvested dead heads contained 174 infested with ticks, with 15 of those tick-infested deer testing positive for CWD. The deer blood from inside the engorged ticks was also tested, and of those 15, six showed active CWD prions.

But what remains unanswered is if deer actually become infected with CWD by ingesting ticks carrying the fatal disease via social grooming.

"Natural modes of indirect transmission of CWD among free-ranging cervids remain poorly examined," researchers noted in the study. "The presence of [prions] in blood may pose a risk for indirect transmission by way of ... parasites acting as mechanical vectors, as cervids can carry high tick infestations and exhibit [social] grooming."

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There is still a lot to be known about the role ticks may play in the creeping spread of CWD across North America's deer herds. This study may lead to further understanding of disease transmission and even potentially, a reevaluation of how CWD is managed and contained.

"We have identified a potential vector of CWD not previously evaluated for [whitetail deer]," researchers wrote in the study. "These findings and implications may prove useful for CWD research and adaptive management efforts moving forward as we advance our understanding of ecologically relevant drivers of CWD dynamics."