The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Ticks Are Nasty Little Creatures
by Ro Wauer

Ticks can seriously effect a pleasant day in the outdoors. This was the case on a recent butterfly expedition to northeastern Mexico when Betty discovered hundreds of the barely visible seed ticks crawling about on her clothing. She apparently had brushed against a bush that had been harboring a huge congregation of these tiny creatures. In spite of finding the ticks early-on and picking off a hundred or more, a few dozen did manage to elude us pickers and eventually created a measles-like rash on her back-side.

I had experienced the same kind of ticks in Mexico several years earlier, but had not been unaware of their presence until the following day when thousands of red welts appeared all across my torso and back. I itched for more than a week, the consequences of not catching them early-on. Interestingly, Betty’s bites never did itch.

Seed ticks, or tick larvae, are extremely tiny, about the size of the head of a pin. Their life history begins when an adult female deposits 3,000 to 6,000 eggs on the ground, which hatch into larvae that climb onto nearby vegetation where they collect in large numbers while waiting for some warm-blooded creature to pass within reach. After a blood meal on the host, the engorged ticks drop to the ground, shed their skins (molt) and emerge as nymphs. The nymphs, tiny adults, also climb onto nearby vegetation to await a host on which to engorge themselves with blood. They then drop to the ground, molt, and become full adults. Once again, the tiny adults (about the size of a sesame seed) climb onto nearby vegetation, attach themselves to a passing warm-blooded animal, and after engorgement fall to the ground and mate; the female then lays eggs.

Although I do not know what kind of tick was encountered in Mexico, it was likely the lone star tick that occurs throughout the southern United States, including Texas. Texas, however, has three additional ticks: American dog, brown dog, and black legged ticks. The lone star tick, brown or tan in color and with one or several silvery-white spots on their backs that can transmit Lyme disease (a potentially serious bacterial infection) to humans in Texas. However, the deer tick that occurs in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions is the primary vector of Lyme disease.

Anyone spending time in the outdoors, especially in brushy areas where ticks are most likely to be encountered, should be aware of ticks and check their clothing often throughout the day. But ticks capable of transmitting Lyme disease must be attached to the body for at least 24 hours for infection to occur. Early symptoms usually include a gradually expanding circular or oval-shaped red rash. Eventually one can experience fatigue, headache, stiffness or pain in neck, muscles or joints, or swollen glands. If gone untreated it can create heart and neurological disorders and arthritis. It is a difficult disease to detect, but can be successfully treated in the early stages with antibiotics.

Almost everyone who has spent much time in the field has experienced ticks. Ticks are not insects, but are closely related to mites, spiders and scorpions. Adults possess eight legs, while adult insects have only six. And the tick’s body is fused instead of having a head, thoracic, and abdominal regions typical of insects. More than 15,000 species are known throughout the world.

Once an adult tick has attached itself to the skin, it is important to remove it as soon as possible, although disease organisms are not transferred until the tick has fed two to eight hours. The best way to remove the tick is to grasp it firmly with tweezers and remove it with a slow, steady pull. Pull it straight out with steady pressure so that the mouthparts are not broken off; leaving the head in can cause a secondary infection. Or one can touch it with a hot needle or a few drops of alcohol, turpentine, or kerosene.

I suffered no problems from seed tick experience several years ago, and Betty recovered with only one major problem. She missed a couple of butterfly species while picking ticks.


At 11:56 PM, Blogger T. Beth said...

Horrors! Ticks are definitely included in my arachnophobia, and I would completely wig at having hundreds of them on me!

At 9:47 PM, Anonymous Emmeline said...

I found a lot of effective data above!


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