Five Freaky Facts About Ticks
If you've ever owned a dog, worked in the yard, taken a walk through the woods or gone camping, you've probably encountered at least one tick during the course of your lifetime.
And you probably know at least a few facts about ticks—that they're blood-suckers; that they feed on mammals, including humans; and that they sometimes carry Lyme Disease.
But did you also know that ticks belong to the same predatory group of insects as spiders? That's right! Ticks are arachnids.
Like mites and centipedes, they belong to the Arachnida class of the phylum Arthropoda. In their adult and nymph stages of development, ticks have four pairs of legs, as all arachnids do (Malinoski 102; "Ticks").
But there's more to ticks than creepy family connections, a thirst for blood and an unpleasant relationship with debilitating illness. In some ways ticks are practically superheroes of the insect world (evil superheroes, that is) with a thirst for adventure and some, well ... pretty amazing super-tick powers.
Ticks often inject their hosts with nerve poison.
If you've ever been bitten by a tick but didn't feel it, it's not because you're insensitive (no matter what your significant other says).
The fact is that sometimes ticks inject anaesthetic into their host's bloodstream, a sort of nerve poison that contains neurotoxins.
Although some people have an allergic reaction to the toxin, for most of us, it acts as a very local anaesthetic, preventing us from feeling the bite—and the subsequent bloodsucking (Davis and Stoppler).
How much of a smartypants are you?
I knew ...
Adult hard-shelled ticks find hosts through a process called questing.
If they weren't bloodsucking pests, ticks would seem (almost) noble in the way that they go about finding hosts.
Although they can't hop, fly or run, ticks do have two abilities, for want of a better word: crawling and dropping. And they use these dubious "skills" to their greatest advantage in order to fill their little bellies with blood.
First they crawl up plants, usually grasses and shrubs, until they reach dizzying heights—at least from a tick's perspective. Then they crawl to even more precarious territory, positioning themselves on the tips of grass blades, the extreme edges of branches, the outermost ends of leaves.
And they wait.
What prompts ticks next is anybody's guess. Is it courage? Bloodlust? Carelessness? I like to think it's a sense of adventure, but perhaps it's merely instinct that causes them to fling themselves toward the warmth of any carbon-based life form that happens to wander by, i.e. you, your dog, a white-tailed deer, a mouse, etc. (Rains).
Crawling, waiting, dropping—that's questing. (Even the word sounds heroic, doesn't it?)
It's a tremendous leap of faith.
Sometimes questing pans out for a tick. If the tick is hard-shelled, like a deer tick, it will feed on its host's blood for as long as it needs to in order to complete any part of its 3-stage life cycle. Most soft-shelled ticks, on the other hand, only feed off hosts for a day at most (Davis and Stoppler).
Tick Super Glue
Hard-shelled ticks secrete a sort of "tick cement," a glue-like substance that helps them stick to hosts.
Ever wonder why ticks are so difficult to remove once they clamp onto your skin? In addition to using their mouthparts to latch onto hosts, they also secrete a gooey substance called cementum. (Think Spiderman and his web shooters.)
Cementum helps ticks attach their feeding tubes, which are often barbed, firmly into their hosts, allowing them to hang on tight (Davis and Stoppler; "Ticks").
Surviving the Hard Times
Some ticks can live for a really long time without food.
Instead of starving to death when they can't find a host to feed upon, sometimes ticks go into a sort of stasis until the situation improves.
Ticks You Might Meet
Most of us will ordinarily encounter only 2 types of ticks at most: hard-shelled & soft-shelled. Of the two, you're least likely to meet those from the soft-shelled family, Argasidae. They feed primarily on chickens, mice & bats (Lee).
Hard-shelled ticks of the Ixodidae family are much more likely to make your acquaintance. They live in woodlands, yards and on pets ("Managing").
Adult deer ticks and bear ticks, for instance, become dormant in the winter if they haven't been able to find a host in the fall. In spring, when chances are better that they'll find a good meal, they "reawaken" and recommence their quest ("Blacklegged Ticks").
According to a publication by Urban Integrated Pest Management in the Southern Region called "Ticks," deer and bear ticks aren't alone in their super-tick ability to survive starvation. American dog tick larvae can live up to 540 days without a meal, and dog tick nymphs can survive as many as 584 days without food.
Adult brown dog ticks are somewhat competitive, lasting up to 200 days without even a drop of blood to sustain them.
Ticks carry a remarkable number of dangerous diseases in addition to Lyme Disease.
World-wide, ticks are second only to mosquitoes as disease vectors or carriers. In the United States, they're the most common vectors, probably due to numerous outbreaks of Lyme Disease (Davis and Stoppler).
Ticks can carry numerous disease-causing pathogens at one time—bacteria, spirochetes, rickettsiae, protozoa, viruses, nematodes, toxins, etc. In other words, they're loaded with the potential to cause lots of dangerous illnesses. And they can transmit multiple disease-carrying pathogens with a single bite. These diseases include Babesiosis, Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis, Lyme Disease, Relapsing Fever, Rickettsia parkeri Rickettsiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, STARI (Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness), 364D Rickettsiosis and Tularemia ("Tickborne Diseases"; "Tickborne Diseases of the U.S.).
"Blacklegged Ticks (Deer Tick, Bear Tick)." Minnesota Department of Health. 14 January 2011. MDH. 28 August 2012. Web.
Davis, Charles Patrick and Melissa Conrad Stoppler. "Ticks." EMedicineHealth. 2012. WebMD. 27 August 2012. Web.
Lee, Susan. "Did You Know That Some Ticks Can Also Bite Humans?" Examiner.com. 8 Sept. 2011. 28 August 2012. Web.
Malinoski, Mary Kay. "Entomology." MD Master Gardener Handbook. University of Maryland Extension. September 2008. 91-104. Print.
"Managing Common Tick Pests in Los Angeles County." County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health. 29 August 2012. Web.
Rains, Bernie. "Tiny, Tenacious, Terrible Ticks." MDCOnline. 19 November 2010. Missouri Department of Conservation. 28 August 2012. Web.
"Tickborne Diseases." National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 15 February 2011. US Department of Health and Human Services. 28 August 2012. Web.
"Tickborne Diseases of the U.S." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. United States Government. 26 August 2012. Web.
"Ticks." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. United States Government. 26 August 2012. Web.
"Ticks." Urban Integrated Pest Management in the Southern Region. 27 August 2012. Web.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Jill Spencer