The other night I had the strangest sensation that I was sleeping with Dracula.
Morning brought not the prince of darkness, but another vampire-like creature. Unlike the original scourge of Transylvania, this small blood-sucking beast took to my leg rather than my neck and was still with me by the light of day.
Ticks are back, or maybe have never really left, but were just waiting. The one that I removed from my thigh was unfortunately a deer tick and had already taken a bite, but was not yet engorged with my blood.
I was tempted to call the little bugger a pesky insect, but that would be a misnomer. While they are pesky, they are not insects. Ticks are arachnids, more closely related to mites and spiders.
There are more than 850 species of ticks worldwide, and they can be divided into two types, hard and soft ticks. Soft ticks have a leathery, membranous covering and live in the cracks, crevices, caves and nests of its hosts. More familiar to us are the hard ticks, whose chitinous armor protects them from even the most determined attempt at crushing.
Our antipathy to ticks comes from the large number of diseases they carry. Some we know and dread, including lyme, tularemia, and babesiosis. Others that come from far and wide, which I would not like to become acquainted with, are Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Russian spring encephalitis, Colorado tick fever, louping ill, Negishi encephalitis, Omsk hemorrhagic fever, Kyasanur forest disease, Langat encephalitis, royal farm virus, Powassan encephalitis, Bhanja virus, Nairobi sheep disease, relapsing fever, Siberian tick typhus, Boutonneuse fever, Japanese river fever, Tsutsugamushi disease, and Kemorovo tick fever. Is it any wonder that Pliny the Elder called the tick the “foulest and nastiest creature that be?”
Each and every variety of tick has its own life cycle and host preference. Some ticks are one-host ticks, some require 2 hosts and others need three, but all require a blood meal.
Ticks develop in three stages. First is the larva, which has only 6 legs. After a blood meal, it will become an 8-legged nymph and after another blood meal, it will become an adult. The first two stages do not transmit disease, although they can cause itching and irritations to their host.
The most familiar stage to us is the adult stage. It is then that the animal lies in wait for its prey. This behavior is called questing. During questing, a tick will stand with its front legs extended in order to attach onto a passing host. It knows to be ready not because it can see or hear well, but because it can sense the heat and carbon dioxide that animals emit. A tricky tick! If no prey is available, ticks can go into diapause, which means it will wait for several months if necessary to procure a blood meal.
A tick buries into the host’s skin and starts feeding using the front part of its head, called the hypostome. Usually the prey does not feel anything because the tick will anesthetize the area before insertion. Once attached, a tick can feed for several days to several weeks. During this feast, its body swells to 200 to 600 times its unfed body weight.
Removing an attached tick is difficult because of the backwards-directed barbs in its hypostome and a cement-like substance from the tick’s saliva that glues the creature in place.
I was happy that I was able to remove the tick on my leg despite those defenses, but I’ll still have to be vigilant. Without knowing how long it was attached, there is some chance that a transfer of germs took place, even though it was not yet engorged with blood. I don’t know why I was its chosen one with all of the other warm, tasty, carbon dioxide-producing animals around, but I guess I’ll never know what makes this feisty, annoying little pest tick.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.