Tick Tock

Tick Tock
Rocky Mountain wood tick
Dermacentor andersoni
Courtesy Mat Pound, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org

Hi I’m Holly Strand from the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.

It’s springtime–bringing warm light-filled days, colorful blooms, chirping birds and bloodthirsty ticks. Ticks are arachnids like spiders and scorpions. They vary in size, shape, and color. But they all have barbed feeding tubes that they use to excavate a hole in your skin so they can bury their heads and suck your blood. Their accordion-like bodies expand as they sip and sip and sip.

Most ticks go through three life stages after hatching: six-legged larva, eight legged nymph and then adult. The ticks need a single blood meal during each of these life stages. To get this meal, ticks wait for their victims–usually a mammal–using a behavior called “questing.” Questing ticks crawl up the stems of grass or perch on the edges of leaves and extend their front legs–like a toddler signaling he wants to be picked up. The presence of carbon dioxide, or heat, or movement let the tick know that a meal may be passing by soon and the tick gets ready. When a passing animal brushes the tick’s extended legs, the tick simply climbs on board. It doesn’t jump. It just feels and attaches. Some ticks will bore in immediately and others will cruise around looking for a spot where the skin is thin and blood vessels closer to the surface.

This head-burying and blood-sucking behavior alone gives ticks an unsavory reputation. But of course ticks are also dangerous in that they transmit disease through their saliva. The Rocky Mountain wood tick and American dog tick have been found to feed on Utahns. Both can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia, also known as rabbit fever.

The Western black-legged tick is another Utah native. It’s a vector for lyme disease. According to the Utah Dept of Public Health, it does appear that a small number of individuals may have acquired the disease in Utah. Human transmission from this tick has definitely occurred in California.

Ticks can be found in grasses, shrublands, forests—basically everywhere. Ticks in hotter, arid parts of the state reach peak activity in April and May while ticks at higher elevations are active from May through July. Ticks in all geographic areas are active in the fall as temperatures cool and moisture increases.

Now that I’ve frightened you, know that the chance of getting a tick born disease in Utah is still small. In spite of its name, the vast majority of Rocky Mountain spotted fever cases are reported in eastern and central states. And in any given year there will probably be less than 10 cases of each disease mentioned. And they are all treatable if caught early. So don’t let fear of ticks keep you inside. Just remember that they are out there and check for them when you’ve been brushing up against vegetation.

To remove a tick, do NOT burn it with a hot match or smother it in petroleum jelly. These methods can make a tick burrow deeper before dying. Instead, remove the tick as quickly as possible using the fine tipped tweezers that you carry in your first aid kit.

For more information including tips on tick avoidance and removal go to www.wildaboututah.org.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.


Image: Courtesy Bugwood.org, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pages on Preventing Tick Bites; Life Cycle and Hard Ticks that Spread Disease
https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/avoid/on_people.html [Accessed March 19, 2014]

James, Angela M. 2006. Distribution, Seasonality, and Hosts of the Rocky Mountain Wood Tick in the United States. Journal of Medical Entomology 43(1):17.

McDade, J E and V F Newhouse. 1986. Natural History of Rickettsia Rickettsii
Annual Review of Microbiology. Vol. 40: 287-309

USU Extension. 2010. Ticks and Associated Diseases Occurring in Utah. Utah Pests News. Volume IV. Summer 2010.

Utah Department of Health, Bureau of Epidemiology.
Fact sheets on Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia and lyme disease.

Utah Department of Health, Bureau of Epidemiology.
Historical Communicable Disease Reports 1980 to present.

Skerrett, Patrick. 2013. Matchless strategy for tick removal; 6 steps to avoid tick bites. Harvard Medical School Health Blog. Posted June 7, 2013.

Zimmer, Carl. 2013. Outside Magazine, June issue.