After the wet winter and spring, recent warm weather and with the abundant vegetation growth, now is a peak time to know and understand a common forest and grassland critter – the tick.
Ticks are arachnids – the same class as spiders. The adults have 8 legs, no antennae and no wings. As the largest of the mites, their cephalothorax and abdomen are fused together into an oval shape. Sizes vary with age – look for ticks in their larval stage as tiny as a pinhead and adults the size of a redwood seed (3mm). Colors and patterns differ with species but shades are dark: black, brown, red, orange.
You can tell apart a male and female from the shield plate on the top of their disc-shaped body. In males, the plate (called the scutum) covers the whole dorsal surface. In females, the plate covers only a third of its back.
Adult ticks looking for a mammal host use a behavior called “questing.” They climb up plant stems, cling to the vegetation with their back legs, and extend their forelegs tipped with tiny claws. Then they wait… ready to grab onto a passing animal. They can also sense carbon dioxide from their host prey.
Most important is the understanding of the tick life cycle as an ectoparasite. As blood-feeders who have multiple hosts in their lifetime, they are vectors for disease. A tick may live 3 years, feeding and molting (leaving its old exoskeleton behind) many times as it grows, carrying pathogens with it from one species to another.
“Deer” or western black-legged ticks (species Ixodes) can transmit Lyme disease and anaplasmosis. “Dog” ticks (species Dermacentor) can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia. While only a small percentage of ticks in our region carry these diseases, awareness and safety practices are essential.
An amazing thing happens when ticks feed on our native western fence lizard (aka “blue bellies”). Lizard blood contains a protein that destroys the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease. The more lizards that live locally, the lower the percentage of ticks capable to transmit the disease.
Ticks live worldwide. They have been around since the Cretaceous period over 100 million years ago. Their success is obvious and they are here to stay. So how do we coexist?
Be vigilant – do a visual and tactile check as a regular routine. Know what it feels like to have a tick crawl on you and be sensitive and alert. Talk with people, kids, visitors from out of the area about the importance of scanning for ticks. Don’t let these blood suckers inhibit you from enjoying nature and outdoor activity, just know how they tick!