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Ixodus ricinus 5x.jpg
Castor bean tick, Ixodes ricinus
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Arachnida
Subclass: Acari
Order: Parasitiformes
Leach, 1815
Suborder: Ixodida
Superfamily: Ixodoidea
Leach, 1815
18 genera, c. 900 species

Ticks are small arachnids in the order Parasitiformes.[1][2][3] Along with mites, they constitute the subclass Acarina. Ticks are ectoparasites (external parasites), living by hematophagy on the blood of mammals, birds, and sometimes reptiles and amphibians. Ticks are vectors of a number of diseases that affect both humans and other animals.

Despite their poor reputation among human communities, ticks may play an ecological role by ailing infirm animals and preventing overgrazing of plant resources.[4]


Of the three families of ticks, one – Nuttalliellidae – comprises a single species, Nuttalliella namaqua. The remaining two families contain the hard ticks (Ixodidae) and the soft ticks (Argasidae).[5][6] Ticks are closely related to the numerous families of mites, within the subclass Acarina (see article: Mites of livestock).

The Ixodidae include over 700 species. They are known as 'hard ticks' because they differ from the Argasidae in having a scutum or hard shield. This shield generally can resist the force of a human's soft-soled footwear, especially on soft ground; it requires a hard sole on a hard surface to crush the tick. However, stepping on an engorged tick, filled with blood, kills it easily, though messily. In nymphs and adults of the Ixodidae, a prominent capitulum (head) projects forwards from the body; in this they differ from the Argasidae.[7] They differ too, in their life cycle; Ixodidae that attach to a host will bite painlessly and generally unnoticed, and they remain in place until they engorge and are ready to change their skin; this process may take days or weeks. Some species drop off the host to moult in a safe place, whereas others remain on the same host and only drop off once they are ready to lay their eggs.

The Argasidae are known regionally as 'soft ticks' or 'tampans'. The family includes about 200 species, but the proper composition of the genus is under review.[5] The following genera were accepted in 2010:

The most obvious distinctions between the Argasidae and the Ixodidae are that:

  • they have no scutum and
  • the capitulum is concealed beneath the body.[7]

The Argasidae also differ from the Ixodidae in their habits and ecology. Many of them feed primarily on birds, though some Ornithodoros for example feed on mammals and are extremely harmful. Both groups feed rapidly, typically biting painfully and gorging within minutes and none of the species will stick to the host in the way that hard ticks do. Unlike the Ixodidae that have no fixed dwelling place except on the host, they live in sand or in crevices or similar shelters near animal dens or nests, or in human dwellings where they might come out nightly to attack roosting birds, or emerge only when they smell carbon dioxide in the breath of their hosts and emerge from the sand to attack them. Species common in North America primarily parasitise birds, and very rarely attack humans or other mammals.[8]

The family Nuttalliellidae contains only a single species, Nuttalliella namaqua, a tick found in southern Africa from Tanzania to Namibia and South Africa,.[5][9] It can be distinguished from Ixodidae ticks and Argasidae ticks by a combination of characteristics, including the position of the stigmata, lack of setae, strongly corrugated integument, and the form of the fenestrated plates.[10]

Fossilized ticks are common. Recent hypotheses based on total-evidence approach analysis place the origin of ticks in the Cretaceous (65 to 146 million years ago), with most of the evolution and dispersal occurring during the Tertiary (5 to 65 million years ago).[11] The oldest example is an argasid (bird) tick from Cretaceous New Jersey amber. The younger Baltic and Dominican ambers have also yielded examples, all of which can be placed in living genera.

Range and habitat

Tick species are widely distributed around the world,[12] but they tend to flourish more in countries with warm, humid climates, because they require a certain amount of moisture in the air to undergo metamorphosis, and because low temperatures inhibit their development from egg to larva.[13] Ticks of domestic animals are especially common and varied in tropical countries, where they cause considerable harm to livestock by transmission of many species of pathogens and also causing direct parasitic damage.

For an ecosystem to support ticks, it must satisfy two requirements: the population density of host species in the area must be high enough, and humidity must be high enough for ticks to remain hydrated.[14] Due to their role in transmitting Lyme disease, ixodid ticks, particularly I. scapularis, have been studied using geographic information systems (GIS), to develop predictive models for ideal tick habitats. According to these studies, certain features of a given microclimate – such as sandy soil, hardwood trees, rivers, and the presence of deer – were determined to be good predictors of dense tick populations.[8]

Anatomy and physiology

Ticks, like mites, have bodies which are divided into two primary sections: the anterior capitulum (or gnathosoma), which contains the head and mouthparts; and the posterior idiosoma which contains the legs, digestive tract, and reproductive organs.[14]

Diet and feeding behaviors

A questing tick, fingers for scale.

Ticks satisfy all of their nutritional requirements as ectoparasites, feeding on a diet of blood in a practice known as hematophagy. They are obligate hematophages, needing blood to survive and move from one stage of life to another. Ticks unable to find a host to feed on will die.[15] This behavior is estimated to have evolved approximately 120 million years ago through adapative pressures to a blood-feeding environment.[16] Evidence suggests this behavior evolved independently in the separate tick families, with differing host-tick interactions driving the adapative change.[17]

Ticks extract the blood by cutting a hole in the host's epidermis, into which they insert their hypostome, and keep the blood from clotting by excreting an anticoagulant or platelet aggregation inhibitor.[18][19]

Ticks find their hosts by detecting animals' breath and body odors, or by sensing body heat, moisture and vibrations. They are incapable of flying or jumping, but many tick species wait in a position known as "questing". While questing, ticks hold on to leaves and grass by their third and fourth pair of legs. They hold the first pair of legs outstretched, waiting to climb on to the host. When a host brushes the spot where a tick is waiting, it quickly climbs onto the host. Some ticks will attach quickly while others will wander looking for thinner skin like the ear.[15] Depending on the species and the life stage, preparing to feed can take from ten minutes to two hours.[15] On locating a suitable feeding spot, the tick grasps the skin and cuts into the surface.[15]


Adult ticks have eight legs.

Like all arachnids, adult ticks have eight legs. The legs of Ixodidae and Argasidae are similar in structure. Each leg is composed of six segments: the coxa, trochanter, femur, patella, tibia, and tarsus. Each of these segments is connected by muscles which allow for flexion and extension, but the coxae have limited lateral movement. When not being used for walking, the legs remain tightly folded against the body.[20][21] Larval ticks hatch with six legs, acquiring the other two after a blood meal and molting into the nymph stage.[22]

In addition to being used for locomotion, the tarsus of leg I contains a unique sensory organ, the Haller's organ, which can detect odors and chemicals emanating from the host, as well as sensing changes in temperature and air currents.[20][21][23]

Life cycle and reproduction

Both ixodid and argasid ticks undergo three primary stages of development: larval, nymphal, and adult.[24]


Ixodid ticks require three hosts, and their life cycle takes at least one year to complete. Up to 3,000 eggs are laid on the ground by an adult female tick. When larvae emerge, they feed primarily on small mammals and birds. After feeding, they detach from their host and molt to nymphs on the ground, which then feed on larger hosts and molt to adults. Female adults attach to larger hosts, feed, and lay eggs, while males feed very little and occupy larger hosts primarily for mating.[8]


Argasid ticks, unlike ixodid ticks, may go through several nymphal stages, requiring a meal of blood each time.[25] Their life cycles range from months to years. The adult female argasid tick can lay a few hundred to over a thousand eggs over the course of her lifetime. Larvae feed very quickly and detach to molt to nymphs. Nymphs may go through as many as seven instars, each requiring a blood meal. Both male and female adults feed on blood, and they mate off the host. During feeding, any excess fluid is excreted by the coxal glands, a process which is unique to argasid ticks.[8]

Researcher collecting ticks using the "tick dragging" method

Medical issues

A sign in a Lithuanian forest warning about a high risk of tick-borne encephalitis infection

Tick-borne disease

Tick-borne illnesses are caused by infection with a variety of pathogens, including Rickettsia and other types of bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. Because ticks can harbor more than one disease-causing agent, patients can be infected with more than one pathogen at the same time, compounding the difficulty in diagnosis and treatment. Major tick-borne diseases include Lyme disease, Q fever (rare; more commonly transmitted by infected excreta),[26] Colorado tick fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, African tick bite fever, Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever, tularemia, tick-borne relapsing fever, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, and tick-borne meningoencephalitis, as well as bovine anaplasmosis and probably the Heartland virus.[27] Some species, notably the Australian paralysis tick, are also intrinsically venomous and can cause paralysis. A recent find is Candidatus neoehrlichia mikurensis, a bacterium which causes blood clots; present in 9% of rodents, it mainly affects persons with lowered immune defense, and can be cured with antibiotics.[28]

Mammalian Meat Allergy is a condition caused by tick bites that induce a delayed allergy to red meat (from mammals)[29] that involves the oligosaccharide, galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose: the food-induced reactions, including anaphylaxis, characteristically present several hours after eating in subjects who have experienced a large local reaction to tick bites up to six months earlier.[30][31]

Eggs can be infected with pathogens inside the ovaries, meaning the larval ticks can be infectious immediately at hatching, before feeding on their first host.[25]


Engorged tick attached to back of toddler's head. Adult thumb shown for scale.

The best way to remove an adult tick is by freezing it off with a medical wart remover or the like.[32] Mechanical removal with household tweezers is contraindicated as it may result in squeezing of the contents of the tick into the bloodstream.

To facilitate prompt removal, fine-tipped tweezers can be used to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and detach it by applying a steady upward force without crushing, jerking or twisting, in such a way as to avoid leaving behind mouthparts or provoking regurgitation of infective fluids into the wound.[33][34][35] Proprietary tick removal tools are also available.[33][34] It is important to disinfect the bite area thoroughly after removal of the tick.[35] The tick can be stored and, in case of signs or symptoms of a subsequent infection, shown to a clinician for identification purposes together with details of where and when the bite occurred.[33] If the tick's head and mouthparts are no longer attached to its body after removal, a punch biopsy may be necessary to remove any parts that have been left behind.[36]

Population control measures

With the possible exception of widespread DDT use in the Soviet Union, attempts to limit the population or distribution of disease-causing ticks have been quite unsuccessful.[37]

The parasitoid chalcid wasp Ixodiphagus hookeri has been investigated for its potential to control tick populations. It lays its eggs into ticks; the hatching wasps kill their hosts.

Another natural form of control for ticks is the guineafowl, a bird species which consumes mass quantities of ticks.[38] Two birds can clear 2 acres (8,100 m2) in a single year.[citation needed]

Topical flea and tick medicines may be toxic to animals and humans. Phenothrin (85.7%) in combination with methoprene was a popular topical flea and tick therapy for felines. Phenothrin kills adult fleas and ticks. Methoprene is an insect growth regulator that interrupts the insect's lifecycle by killing the eggs. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required at least one manufacturer of these products to withdraw some products and include strong cautionary statements on others, warning of adverse reactions.[39]

Deer ticks

An adult tick found on a dog, ballpoint pen is shown for scale.

The black-legged or deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) is dependent on the white-tailed deer for reproduction. Larval and nymphal stages (immature ticks that cannot reproduce) of the deer tick feed on birds and small mammals. The adult female tick needs a large three-day blood meal from the deer before she can reproduce and lay her 2000 or more eggs. Deer are the primary hosts for the adult deer ticks, and are key to their reproductive success.[40] Numerous studies have shown the abundance and distribution of deer ticks are correlated with deer densities.[40][41][42][43]

When the deer population was reduced by 74% at a 248-acre (100-ha) study site in Bridgeport, Connecticut the number of nymphal ticks collected at the site decreased by 92%.[40] The relationship between deer abundance, tick abundance, and human cases of Lyme disease was well documented in the Mumford Cove Community in Groton, Connecticut, from 1996 to 2004. The deer population in Mumford Cove was reduced from approximately 77 to 10 deer per square mile (four deer per square kilometer) after two years of controlled hunting. After the initial reduction, the deer population was maintained at low levels. Reducing deer densities to 10 deer per square mile was adequate to reduce by more than 90% the risk of humans contracting Lyme disease in Mumford Cove.[44]

A 2006 study by Penn State's Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics indicated reducing the deer population in small areas (but not large areas) may lead to higher tick densities, resulting in more tick-borne infections in rodents, leading to a high prevalence of tick-borne encephalitis and creating a tick hot-spot.[45]

Private Control Services

A new industry has emerged in which private companies provide residential and commercial tick control. Many of these businesses were developed specifically to help stop the spread of Lyme Disease. There are many different service providers and many different techniques used. Typically, licensed spray technicians spray a formula in and around a property on a recurring basis. Some sprays are used to kill ticks. Other sprays are used to repel ticks. Finally, some sprays are designed to fulfill each of these purposes.[46]

See also



  1. "Systematics and evolution of ticks with a list of valid genus and species names". Parasitology. 129: S15–S36. 2004. doi:10.1017/S0031182004005207.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Klompen J S, Black W C, Keirans J E, Oliver J H (1996). "Evolution of ticks". Annual review of entomology. 41: 141–61. doi:10.1146/annurev.ento.41.1.141.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Anderson John F (2002). "The natural history of ticks". Medical Clinics of North America. 86 (2): 205–218. doi:10.1016/s0025-7125(03)00083-x.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. New York Times
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Guglielmone et al. (2010)
  6. Goddard (2008): p. 80
  7. 7.0 7.1 Molyneux (1993) p. 6
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Allan (2001)
  9. Keirans et al. (1976)
  10. Roshdy et al. (1983)
  11. de la Fuente (2003)
  12. Magnarelli (2009)
  13. Nuttall (1905)
  14. 14.0 14.1 Wall & Shearer (2001): p. 55
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 "Life cycle of Hard Ticks that Spread Disease". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved 22 June 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Klompen and Grimaldi (2001): [1]
  17. #KlompenGrimaldi
  18. Goddard (2008): p. 82
  19. Mans, Luow, and Neitz (2002): [2]
  20. 20.0 20.1 Sonenshine (2005): p. 14
  21. 21.0 21.1 Nicholson et al. (2009): p. 486
  22. "Common Ticks". Illinois Department of Public Health. Retrieved 11 April 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. For Haller's organ, see also: Mehlhorn (2008): p. 582.
  24. Dennis & Piesman (2005): p. 5
  25. 25.0 25.1 Aeschlimann & Freyvogel, 1995: p. 182
  26. "Q fever". Centers for Disease Control. Retrieved November 7, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. "Heartland virus".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Andersson & Råberg (2011)
  29. van Nunen, Sheryl (2015-01-01). "Tick-induced allergies: mammalian meat allergy, tick anaphylaxis and their significance". Asia Pacific Allergy. 5 (1): 3–16. doi:10.5415/apallergy.2015.5.1.3. ISSN 2233-8276. PMC 4313755. PMID 25653915.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. Bianca Nogrady (May 10, 2008). "One tick red meat can do without". The Australian. Retrieved October 17, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. Saleh et al. (2012)
  32. "Catalyst: Tick allergy - ABC TV Science". www.abc.net.au. 17 February 2015. Retrieved 2015-12-10.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 "Correct tick removal". Borreliosis and Associated Diseases Awareness UK. Retrieved October 24, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  34. 34.0 34.1 "Tick removal". Lyme Disease Action. Retrieved October 24, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  35. 35.0 35.1 "Tick removal". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 24, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  36. Zuber & Mayeaux (2003), p. 63
  37. Dennis & Piesman, 2005: p. 3
  38. Duffy et al. (1992)
  39. "Hartz flea and tick drops for cats and kittens to be phased out". Environmental Protection Agency. Archived from the original on January 11, 2011. Retrieved September 16, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  40. 40.0 40.1 40.2 Stafford (2007)
  41. Rand et al. (2004)
  42. Walter et al. (2002)
  43. Wilson et al. (1990)
  44. Kilpatrick & LaBonte (2007)
  45. "Deer-free areas may be haven for ticks, disease". Science Daily. September 4, 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  46. "Mosquito Shield- Tick Shield Tick Control Program". moshield.com. Mosquito Shield. Retrieved 26 August 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


Further reading