Adventures with Ticks
By John Gibble
It’s not unusual during hunting season to find a tick crawling up my pants leg. I’ve picked them off the dogs even in the coldest months. This past July, one of our club members reported picking 92 ticks off of his two beagles a day after a morning run. Undoubtedly ticks are a nasty pest that transmits diseases to man and beast. But there is an interesting story behind that tick you just pulled off your dog’s ear. We read a lot about ticks and the diseases they carry, but I thought I’d take a stab at writing something a little less technical and a bit more understandable concerning ticks.
That tick started off life as one of several thousand eggs laid by its mother. After being piled in a mass, more exuded than laid, it may have taken anywhere from three weeks to several months for these eggs to hatch, depending on temperature and humidity. The larva or hatchlings closely resemble an adult tick except they are much smaller (think three on a head of a pin) and they have six legs rather than the eight legs they will have in their next stages. Upon hatching, the larva immediately begins searching for their first meal, blood. They may live several months without that first meal, but the sooner they find a host, the better their chances of success.
Generally the first host is a rather small mammal, but it could be a bird or even a reptile. Some species of ticks, such as the rabbit tick, are very specific in host selection and are seldom found on other species of hosts; but most tick species are generalists and will take whatever comes along. Field research has proven a direct correlation between the density of white-footed mice and the prevalence of ticks. White-footed mice (and closely related deer mice) are very common across most of the ticks’ range. One study concluded that a bumper crop of acorns one year would result in an increase in the density of mice the next year, which in turn would support a significant increase in ticks the following year.
Picture thousands of tiny, newly-hatched ticks in the space of several square inches on the forest floor. When a foraging mouse ambles by, hundreds may climb aboard. Others may attach to the next potential host, and yet many more may simply perish from failure to find a host or dessication. Because they are so tiny, this larva may be limited in potential hosts. I recall doing field work on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and coming back to my lodgings at night just crawling with tick larva. They were like little red dots, barely visible. They were easily dislodged with a wash rag and washed down the shower drain. We would pack our clothes in black plastic garbage bags and roast the larva to death in a car with rolled up windows, parked in the sun. Larger hosts like humans, dogs, and deer, with thicker skin and deeper blood supplies may be unsuitable for the larval tick.
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