This post appeared in The Last Word on Nothing on February 26, 2016.
There’s a certain category of mundane but distinctly unpleasant discovery: The blueberries you just mixed in your oatmeal explode mold into your mouth at 6 a.m. You read that Donald Trump won the Nevada Republican caucuses. You roll over in bed to find a tick lodged midriff-deep in your shoulder, wiggling about with a tenacity that suggests she plans to spelunk all the way through to your lungs.
“Fortuitously, the antibiotic you take prophylactically for Lyme disease is also the one you take to treat Chlamydia,” the doctor tells me cheerfully a day later when he checks the bruised and swollen bite and gives me a prescription. I stare at him, wondering why he thinks I need this information. It’s unlikely that I’ve got Lyme. Though local incidence is going up, Oregon saw only 44 reported cases in 2014 and Washington generally gets fewer than 30 a year – with just zero to three stemming from local ticks. But the fact that odds are in my favor fails to cheer me as I pluck tick after ever-more-engorged tick from my dog over the next several days. They’re small and hide well in her fur, so unless they pop out of her ears and stroll calmly across her face (some do) I can’t seem to find them until they’re attached and on their way to becoming fat and shiny as coffee beans.
Their emergence is, of course, just as much a sign of spring as the lovely purple grass widows my friend Roger and I had been out looking for when tickmageddon started last Saturday. By tick 10, I started to wonder: Aside from their reputation for transmitting more diseases than any other blood-sucking arthropod, why shouldn’t I find a way to appreciate ticks, too – from a safe distance away? Maybe I could even learn to love them a little bit.
“I find them to be quite cute,” an “arachnopeon” by the handle of Exuviae told me when I posted a query to a forum on Arachnoboards.com. Cute. I squinted at the ziplock baggie where I had placed the tick my roommate had attempted to burn out of my skin with a match before yanking it out with tweezers. With eight segmented legs, a tear-drop shaped black and brown body, and a set of jutting mouth parts, it belonged to the Ixodidae family, or the hard ticks – one of two major tick families. (The third, the enigmatic and somewhat musical sounding Nuttalliellidae, contains a single species that hasn’t been collected in 80 years). Though dead, my attacker did appear to be waving at me – almost as if it were still “questing.” This charming name applies to an equally charming-looking behavior: When seeking food, hard ticks perch atop tall grass or leaves, spreading their wee forelimbs wide like a toddler seeking a hug, in hopes that you’ll walk straight into them. Once they find tender skin, they embed their vaguely chainsaw-esque mouthparts – barbed backward to make removal difficult, and cemented in place with a chemical secretion. No wonder my hitchhiker left such a bruise.
Like mosquitoes, ticks aren’t necessarily a key source of food for other species. Their role in ecosystems may be more as a balancing force in the same way predation can be – thinning out populations of various creatures with the pathogens they spread.
Scientists have described nearly 900 tick species worldwide – a diverse array that occupies every kind of habitat, from desert to tropical forest, from sub-Arctic to Antarctic. And while some sample cuisine widely across the animal kingdom, even noshing from amphibians, others are endemic to a single host – occupying a rhino, say, as if it were its own separate planet. (Clearly this is where John Mayer got the original inspiration to write “Your body is a wonderland.”) To support study, there are even curated libraries of ticks – the U.S. National Tick Collection at Georgia Southern University contains over one million specimens filed away on slides and in vials of alcohol.
Given the sheer variety – and, let’s be honest, the middle-school gross/cool factor – I was starting to see how someone might become a connoisseur of this corner of the Arachnid class. A renowned tick researcher and taxonomist named Jane B. Walker even “had her own likes and dislikes amongst the tick genera,” Ivan Horak, Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Ectoparasitology at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, wrote in Walker’s 2009 obituary. “She was without doubt the expert on the genus Rhipicephalus, with which she had an ongoing love affair. She was greatly distressed when it was proposed that the genus Boophilus become a subgenus of her beloved Rhipicephalus, a subject which the protagonists of this change preferred not to discuss with her.”
Walker and her coauthors revealed this same fondness for their subjects in their scientific writing, edging occasionally from empirical detachment into clear admiration, describing one tick species as “among the most unusual, beautiful, and rare … known to the world.” Looking through some of the tick specimens in the National Tick Collection site, I had to admit that they were kind of beautiful – intricate, translucent, caramel-colored. Creatures with their own inscrutable priorities and value. But when my dog followed me to the kitchen for lunch, I discovered yet another tick under her chin. And, without a second thought, I plucked and smashed this one, too.
Today, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that grizzly bears and wolves and other charismatic megafauna are worthy of our love and admiration. But as Jon Mooallem so aptly points out in his book Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, our attitudes towards such species have shifted in proportion to the amount we’ve neutralized the threats they may have once posed to our lives and livelihoods. Changing the environment and actively killing them off, we’ve reduced them to rare novelties, under the thumb of constant management and human influence.
Ticks are different. We’ve never managed to head off the threat of tick-borne disease. And in fact, human-caused imbalances in the environment have only magnified it. Climate change is helping facilitate the spread of Lyme-disease bearing ticks into new places, and shorter, warmer winters mean longer periods of activity – and more potential for transmission. That dynamic has also helped make “ghost moose” – so plagued with ticks each winter that they rub off their own hair and often die – a regular phenomenon in New England.
No wonder ticks themselves still seem so gross and alarming. They represent, in a way, a wildness that is much harder to tame. And they confront us with some difficult truths about ourselves.
The image, taken by Flickr user John Tann, shows an Ixodidae tick in western Australia. Clearly it wants a hug.