When most people think of ticks, they shudder, as if a cloud passed over the sun or they just passed through a cobweb. After they think of them, they get that itchy creepy-crawly feeling that doesn’t seem to go away. Don’t worry, even I get that sometimes.
But here’s the kicker: I think ticks are totally awesome! Yes, by now you should know I’m a parasite nerd. It doesn’t help that the university I attend has resident parasitologists or that the research I’ve assisted with (mostly) involves parasites. It does help that we live in an area where there are several endemic species to look at and take pictures of, though, especially since the mild winter didn’t control the insect population very well (obviously it didn’t listen to Bob Barker’s spiel).
It also doesn’t help that we have a dog who loves to hide in random places (and is a tick magnet despite getting rigorous tick control).
So for your attention, you get some (rather meh quality) pictures of three ticks we’ve found on our dog (or our ceiling) this month:
This little girl is (as per normal) a bit hard to see but is conveniently centered in the picture. Any guesses? Classmates that want to pitch their lot in? This is Amblyomma americanum, also known as the Lone Star Tick because of that single white spot on its back. It is extremely common in our area and also carries a bug known as Cytauxzooan felis, which I’m just putting on here because I love the way it is spelled, not because of the way it acts C. felis lives in wild cats but is known to kill a high percentage of infected pet cats. Other things these carry include Ehrlichia species (which Eli was positive for when we got him), a group of agents which cause symptoms similar to Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in dogs.
It”s also important to know that Amblyomma species have really long mouthparts, because it makes differentiating the next two ticks we found a lot easier. Fun fact: the mouthparts are actually located on a body part called a ‘capitulum’ instead of a head, so ticks are technically headless!
Unfortunately, you may have to click for a larger view to see the differences between these two pictures. The one on the wood is actually another Amblyomma, this time Amblyomma maculatum, or the Gulf Coast Tick (which doesn’t actually always live on the gulf coast). These ticks are really big compared to other ticks (well, before they’ve eaten, anyway) and can cause Gotch Ear in cattle, which is thickening of the ears, causing them to droop.
The one on the paper towel is actually another tick species, despite looking superficially similar to the one above it. This one has shorter, rectangular or trapezoidal mouthparts, and is the American Dog Tick, or Dermacentor variabilis. These can also carry C. felis as well as things like actual Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (Rickettsia rickettsii).
D. variabilis are also known to jump on me while I’m sitting on the couch. How do they do this? I figured it out this weekend when I caught this one in the act: They’re crawling onto our ceiling. Before you start panicking and looking in the dark corners of your own home, it is partially our fault. We leave the back door of our new place open on nice days, and our backyard is teeming with fun bugs that have a tendency to find their way in if we don’t watch out for them. I’ve actually proposed these sneaky devils be classified as a new subspecies: D. variabilis ninjii and A. americanum ninjii, but I don’t think anyone else will agree to rename them.
Fun Fact: ticks are attracted to the carbon dioxide animals breathe out. They also get stuck to tape. So for a fun idea, put some dry ice on a piece of cardboard, put double-sided tape around the edges of the cardboard, wait a while, and you’ll have ticks stuck to the tape! Assuming you have ticks, at least…
The take-home message is this: Ticks on the ground are really cool; ticks on your pets are bad. And if you like parasitology, ticks are more fun to look at and study!