Ticks

Ticks are blood-feeding parasites that are often found in tall grass and shrubs where they will wait to attach to a passing host.

Physical contact is the only method of transportation for ticks. Ticks do not jump or fly, although they may drop from their perch and fall onto a host. Some species actively stalk the host by foot.

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Although ticks are commonly thought of as insects, they are actually arachnids like scorpions, spiders and mites. All members of this group have four pairs of legs as adults and have no antennae. Adult insects have three pairs of legs and one pair of antennae. Ticks are among the most efficient carriers of disease because they attach firmly when sucking blood, feed slowly and may go unnoticed for a considerable time while feeding. Ticks take several days to complete feeding. Ticks have four life stages: egg, six-legged larva, eight-legged nymph and adult. After the egg hatches, the tiny larva (sometimes called a “seed tick”) feeds on an appropriate host. The larva then develops (molts) into the larger nymph. The nymph feeds on a host and then molts into an even larger adult. Both male and female adults find and feed on a host, then the females lay eggs sometime after feeding.

Ticks wait for host animals from the tips of grasses and shrubs (not from trees). When brushed by a moving animal or person, they quickly let go of the vegetation and climb onto the host. Ticks can only crawl; they cannot fly or jump. Ticks found on the scalp have usually crawled there from lower parts of the body. Some species of ticks will crawl several feet toward a host. Ticks can be active on winter days when the ground temperatures are about 45o Fahrenheit.

There are two groups of ticks, sometimes called the “hard” ticks and “soft” ticks. Hard ticks, like the common dog tick, have a hard shield just behind the mouthparts (sometimes incorrectly called the “head”); unfed hard ticks are shaped like a flat seed. Soft ticks do not have the hard shield and they are shaped like a large raisin. Soft ticks prefer to feed on birds or bats and are seldom encountered unless these animals are nesting or roosting in an occupied building.

Blacklegged Tick, also known as the Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis)

All three active stages of the blacklegged / deer tick will feed on a variety of hosts including people. After the eggs hatch in the spring, the very tiny larvae feed primarily on white-footed mice or other small mammals. The following spring, the larvae molt into pinhead-sized, brown nymphs that will feed on mice, larger warm-blooded animals and people. In the fall, they molt into adults that feed primarily on deer, with the females laying eggs the following spring. Adults are reddish-brown and about 1/8-inch long (or about one-half the size of the more familiar female American dog tick).

These ticks are found in wooded areas along trails. The larvae and nymphs are active in the spring and early summer; adults may be active in both the spring and fall. The blacklegged / deer tick can transmit Lyme disease and possibly ehrlichiosis to humans.

Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americanum)

The lone star tick is primarily found in the southern half of Illinois, although it can occasionally be found further north. Larvae, nymphs and adults will feed on a variety of warm-blooded hosts, including people. The larva is very tiny, only a little larger than the period at the end of this sentence. The nymph, the most common stage found on people, is about pinhead-sized. Adults are about 1/8-inch long and brown. The adult female has a white spot in the middle of her back. Because they are so similar in size, the lone star tick is sometimes misidentified by laypersons as the blacklegged / deer tick (see below).

The lone star tick is most active from April through the end of July. Although it can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever, the lone star tick is not as likely to transmit the disease as the American dog tick. This tick also may transmit tularemia and ehrlichiosis to humans. The lone star tick is not believed to transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi), but may be associated with a related bacteria species that has not been completely identified.

American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis)

One of the most frequently encountered ticks is the American dog tick, also sometimes known as the wood tick. The larvae and nymphs feed on small warm-blooded animals such as mice and birds. The adult American dog tick will feed on humans and medium to large mammals such as raccoons and dogs.

Unfed males and females are reddish-brown and about 3/16-inch long. Females have a large silver-colored spot behind the head and will become ½-inch long after feeding or about the size of a small grape. Males have fine silver lines on the back and do not get much larger after feeding. Males are sometimes mistaken for other species of ticks because they appear so different from the female.

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