Few people, even nature lovers, love the tick. It is difficult to love a creature that has its mouthparts embedded in your flesh.
This is the way most acquaintances with this little vampire begin. One does not set off on a nature hike to look for a tick in the field and exclaim, “Oh my, how interesting.” Instead, one is far more likely to go to the bathroom mirror and scream, “Oh my God, get that damn thing off me!”
Ticks belong to the order Acarina, which also includes mites. There are about 850 different kinds of ticks — so far as we know, that is. According to one estimate, there may be as many as a million other kinds of ticks and mites in the world, still waiting for scientists to classify them. It is something to look forward to.
Like spiders, scorpions, and other arachnids, ticks have eight legs, at least most of the time. When they first hatch out as larvae, however, they have six. If this sort of thing bothers you, you would do well not to become an acarologist (a specialist in mites and ticks), much less a biologist.
Ticks make their living by sucking blood out of mammals, birds, and reptiles. They usually lie in wait on a plant until a suitable host passes nearby, then hop on board, anchoring themselves to the skin by means of a dart-like structure located below the mouth. Ticks are known to wait around up to three years for a host to come by. They are very patient.
One of the problems with bloodsucking — at least for the host — is that this is a fine way to transmit diseases from one organism to another. Among arthropods ticks are rivaled only by mosquitoes in the number of diseases transmitted. These include Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, Texas cattle fever, relapsing fever, anaplasmosis, and a fairly new one — first recognized in 1975 — called Lyme disease. And if this isn’t enough, some female ticks can also pass along a nerve poison in their saliva that produces paralysis.
So, if one day you happen to discover a tick on your person, you are probably justified in removing it as quickly as possible. If you are really patient, you can just wait for the female tick to have its fill of blood — after which she will drop off by herself to go lay her eggs — but few of us are this considerate of other life forms. Removing a tick, one of the most tenacious creatures on earth, is easier said than done, however.
If particular care is not taken, part of its head — the capitulum — may remain in the flesh and possibly cause infection. Some folk remedies call for applying petroleum jelly or a burned match to the animal, the idea being to “encourage” the tick to release its hold so it can be removed intact. You might also try playing loud hard rock music next to its head. AC/DC works especially well, and some have reported good results with Megadeth. These remedies can make matters worse, however, by actually irritating the tick and causing it to regurgitate its gut contents, which is not a good thing. The best bet is to use a plain old set of fine tweezers, then wash the wound with soap and water.
Great care should also be taken to properly dispose of the tick. One source advises burning or drowning in alcohol. You might also try a tiny stake through the heart.
You can’t be too careful with vampires.
Column ©Gene Twaronite 2015
Gene’s latest book is “The Absurd Naturalist. Irreverent Musings on Nature,” available from Amazon or your local bookstore. Follow Gene’s writing at his blog, TheTwaroniteZone.Com. “The Absurd Naturalist” logo by Jonathan Devine.