I, Ixodes, the Mighty Tick

ixodes_cape_cover_06-2I am Ixodes, the Mighty Tick. My full name is Ixodes Scapularis. I’m more commonly known as the deer tick. You may have met me during your outdoor adventures. I’m the little brown thing stuck on your leg that you can’t pull off. That bug you’ve heard so many bad stories about.

This is my true life story.

Life as a Baby

came_out_of_egg_03I started life as an egg. Inside my egg was enough food to last a couple of months. After that I had to push my way out and hustle for my own grub. Tiny? I was no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. I had six legs, not that you could see them without a magnifying glass.

When I first got out, I didn’t have a clue what to do next. But I had that wonderful thing called instinct. I had the sense to crawl up on a leaf near the ground and wait for dinner to come to my door.

Then, what do you know? A fat mouse appeared. I could smell it, hear it, and even feel its body heat. Suddenly, it all made sense. What I needed for dinner was blood from that mouse.

An Eating Machine

at_center_of_my_beautiful_02I scrambled onto the mouse’s fur and looked for a place to eat. I knew then that I was an eating machine! For a mouth, I had a long, prickly sticker with a tube inside. I sank the tube into the mouse’s skin. When it was in, I spread my body out and got ready to stuff myself.

You may ask, how did I get by with this nasty sticking and biting? Why didn’t the mouse feel anything? My saliva has a chemical that numbs the skin. Another chemical acts like glue to keep my body fastened in place so I won’t be scratched off.

All I had to do was sit there and suck through my tube like a kid with a straw in a milk shake. When I was full, I squirted out another chemical to dissolve the glue.


After I was done with dinner, I was almost 200 times bigger than when I started. A really fat dude. Because my shell was practically bursting, I had to get rid of it and grow a new one. That’s called molting. When the shell had fallen away, my soft underbelly was completely exposed to any bird that fancied a snack. It was a scary time. It took a month for the new shell to grow on. In the bargain, I got two extra legs, making eight in all.

At this point, I was ready to eat again.

The Bad News

Some mice—like the one I bit—carry viruses in their blood that cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease. If the mouse I bit was infected, it meant that I was, too. And if I was infected, any human I dined on would get the disease.

lymes_disease_03People who get Lyme disease are in for a bad trip. They run a fever, their body aches, and they’re tired all the time. A red rash starts around the tick bite. In a few days a red ring forms around a clear circle, like a bull’s eye. If the disease is diagnosed quickly and the doctor starts an antibiotic, the person will probably recover. If not, they’ll have all kinds of medical problems and may never get well.

rocky_mountain_fever_01Rocky Mountain spotted fever is worse. It starts out with a rash. A week or two after the bite, people get so sick that they end up in the hospital. They can’t breathe right, hear, or talk clearly. Unless given antibiotics quickly, three of four infected humans die.

Tips for Humans

You’re safe if you find a tick on your skin before it starts feeding. It takes ticks a while to find a warm safe spot. The humans who know what they’re doing grasp a tick near the head with tweezers and pull straight out. They don’t twist the tick or leave a chopped off head in the skin, where it can still cause an infection.


Smart people put the dead tick in a jar for a couple of weeks until they’re sure they’re not getting sick. If they find a rash or feel funny, they go to a doctor and take the tick body in a jar for lab testing.

Some advice

  • Spray your clothes with permethrin before going out in the woods. It lasts for a month, even after laundering.
  • Spray your skin with Deet.
  • Stay on trails instead of hiking through the undergrowth.
  • If you take a dog, put a flea collar on it or be sure it’s current on tick prevention medicine.
  • Do a full-body check of your skin after you’ve been in the woods.
  • If you find a tick remove it with a pair of tweezers, pulling straight out. Be sure to get the head along with the body.
  • Shower when you get in, never giving ticks a chance to hunt for a good feeding place.
  • Wash your clothes.

Happy trails!

Life of a Tick

The life of Mr. Tick (or Ms. Tick) starts as a single egg bunched up with thousands of others.  Once the mother has accomplished the Herculean task of giving birth, she dies.

Mr. Tick hatches as a tiny larva with six legs.  This early in life, he can go without food for months, but eventually he needs a big meal of warm blood or he will die.

Let’s say a rabbit comes along just in time, and the tick fills his belly with life-giving blood. If the rabbit has Lyme disease, this is of no concern to the tick. He is unaffected. He goes merrily on his way searching for more food.  For a passing hiker on whom the tick lands, it’s another story. The hiker is likely to pick up the virus and get sick.

With all this eating and growing, the tick needs to molt–that is, to shed the shell protecting his soft underbody.  His shell can’t expand and so it must be ditched.

Molting is a long process, lasting about a month—a dangerous time for Mr. Tick. Any passing beetle or spider can devour his soft, delicious body. If the tick escapes being eaten, he grows two more legs.  Now the tick is called a nymph even though the sex is still unclear.  (If you’re a girl, Mr. Tick, please excuse our form of address.)

Time for another big meal. Perching on a leaf or grass stem near the ground, the tick waits for a  rabbit, deer, or human to jump on. That done, he  seeks a safe crevice and digs in for dinner.  When he’s fat and full, he drops off to molt for the last time.

Now Mr. Tick (if it’s a he) is ready for romance.  He hangs out at eating establishments–that is, on warm-blooded animals–looking for love.  Mating takes place on a animal where the male and female are feeding.  After that, the old story repeats itself.  The female lays several thousand eggs and dies.  If the male is lucky, he lives to be an old man of three.

Miracle of design

The mouth of a tick is a design masterpiece.  In the center is a tube (hypostome) that comes to a point and pierces an animal’s skin. Prongs hold it in place. The tick squirts his personal glue on your skin so you can’t scratch or pull him off. The glue sits under the tick’s two palps–mouth parts that spread out on your skin.  When dinner is over, the glue conveniently dissolves.

How does the tick get by with all this biting and poking?  Easy.  His victims don’t feel a thing.  A chemical in the tick’s saliva numbs the skin and keeps the bite from getting red and itchy.  Otherwise, the jig would be up.

That’s not all.  Another chemical prevents normal blood clotting. A blood clot would be bad news for a tick, as it would plug his feeding tube.

The hunting game

Ticks are clever hunters. After they find a look-out spot, they push their front legs forward so they’ll brush against passing animals. Thousands of nerve endings in the tick’s legs sense approaching movement and warmth.  Mr. Tick can even smell exhaled carbon dioxide.

Hidden ticks can feed for days or even weeks on a single animal if they aren’t caught—stuffing themselves until they swell to many times their normal size.

Terror of the underbrush

Ticks carry more diseases than almost any other blood-sucking insect in the world. Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever are the most common.

Lyme disease makes you hot and feverish.  You get frequent headaches and feel tired and depressed.  You may see a skin rash where you were bitten.  It’s red at the center surrounded by a ring of normal skin, with a big pink circle around that.

If you’re diagnosed and treated soon enough, recovery is rapid.  If not, soon your joints hurt, your heart behaves strangely, and your nervous system plays tricks on you

If a tick gives you Rocky Mountain spotted fever, you’ll get a different kind of rash– many small red spots, even on the hands. You’re likely to end up in the hospital because of breathing problems, hearing loss, and trouble speaking. You may not be able to walk properly. Antibiotics are the only cure, and they must be started promptly.

Avoiding tick bites

•       Spray your clothes with permethrin before hiking.  It kills ticks that contact the fabric.  Don’t spray it on your skin. Skin chemicals quickly break permethrin down so it doesn’t work.
•       Spray your skin with an insect repellent containing DEET.
•       If your dog hikes with you, make sure his or her flea-tick preventive is current.
•       While you’re outdoors, check your skin for ticks every few hours. If you remove them within an hour or two after they find you, infection isn’t likely.
•       If a tick is buried in your skin, pull it off and count the legs.  A six-legged tick (larva) is usually too young to carry disease.
•       Take every tick with eight legs seriously, no matter how small.  Size has nothing to do with danger.
•       Shower right after hiking to wash off ticks that haven’t latched on yet.  Ticks often spend hours looking for a soft, warm spot.
•      Put your clothes in a drier on high for 15 minutes when you get home.  That kills ticks hiding in the folds.

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