Everything you wanted to know about ticks

I was out hiking with the Bullthistle Hiking Club a few weeks ago and the subject of ticks came up. Seems like everyone this year is finding them on their skin or clothing. Anyhow, there's a lot of talk out there about ticks. So I thought I would devote this week’s column to expounding on the current information out there.

Ticks are relatives of the spider, mite, scorpion, and chigger, and are members in the arachnid family. They have eight legs when they are adults. I never looked that close, have you? There are three different families of ticks, two transmit disease: the hard tick and soft tick. Throughout the world there are about 800 different species of ticks and they have been around about 90 million years. Not as long as the cockroach, but a lot longer than humans.

Ticks feast only on blood, and most are not very particular as to whose blood they dine on. They will attach to mammals, amphibians, reptiles and birds. So even snakes are in danger of the dreaded tick! It seems like only fish are not on the tick’s menu as ticks are not aquatic by nature.

From my research, it is the hard ticks that we outdoorspeople encounter most. The hard ticks live part of their lives on the ends of shrubs, tall grasses and other plant life, holding on to the stalk with a leg or two and reaching out to grasp onto whatever brushes up against them. This is called "questing.” Certain biochemicals such as carbon dioxide as well as heat and movement serve to stimulate the questing behavior. Subsequently, these ticks climb onto a potential host which brushes against their extended front legs. The vast majority of soft ticks are nest parasites, residing in sheltered environments such as burrows, caves, or nests.

They tell me that the hard ticks are called that because they have a hard part on their dorsal called a scutum. The soft ticks do not have this. Good to know, but who has a microscope handy? What you can see, on the hard ticks, is the mouth parts. There are three – two claspers on each side of the feeding tube. On the soft shell ticks, you cannot see the mouth parts, they are underneath the body...the dead giveaway. Does it matter? Maybe not, unless you are bitten.

Other differences in the hard and soft ticks are that hard ticks usually hang on to their host anywhere from a few hours to a few days, even weeks. They expand 200-600 times their body weight when they fill up on blood. The diseases they carry is transmitted at the end of their "feast.” Their attachment is usually painless, and you don't know one has attached to you until you feel it by touch as when you are showering or changing clothes. They fall off or let go of their host when they've had their fill. As for soft ticks, they feed for less than an hour, and they only expand five to 10 times their body weight when they fill up on blood. Their feeding behavior can be compared to that of fleas as once established, they reside very near the host, feeding rapidly when the host returns and disturbs the nest (this is generally with birds and small ground nesting mammals). They transmit diseases instantly when they attach. Their attachment can sometimes cause excruciating pain, most likely you will know when one is on you.

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