In science class, we often talk about how every organism has its place – removing one organism can cause harm to an entire ecosystem.
Take the pesky mosquito. Annoying as they are, if we removed them all, certain birds and bats would also go extinct as that is their main food source.
Ticks play a role in our ecosystem, as food for some frogs, birds, lizards, squirrels, mice, and other rodents. However, none of those animals eat ticks exclusively; so one still might wonder if it would be OK to completely eradicate the tick since they carry diseases.
An easy answer to that question is “Yes – it could be OK to eradicate ticks.” And that might be the truth. However, scientists don’t know every connection, and we could end up with unintended consequences. Maybe it would help if you learn about ticks’ fascinating adaptions. Probably not, but they are still fascinating.
Imagine you have to pick a spot in your yard and wait for food to pass by close enough for you to grab it. That is kind of what a tick has to do. The tick climbs up to the tallest place it can (which might be atop a bush or a blade of grass) and holds onto the plant with its back legs, stretching out into the air with its front legs.
Then it waits and waits and waits. Some ticks can go weeks and months without anything to eat, so they have no problem waiting for you or your dog to pass by.
Depending on the species, the tick will attach to a warm body that brushes past; some even detect warm a warm body approaching, then drop down on the body as it passes by. If the tick successfully lands on the warm body (human, dog, mouse, etc), it will walk around up to several hours looking for the perfect meal spot.
Ticks prefer to find thin skin that is close to a small vein. The skin on your arms, hands, knees, and other places are far too thick for a tick to find a vein. Instead, the tick will travel around until it finds a nice dark and warm place where it can sink its head into your skin and into the small vein. This is why you will most often find ticks under your socks or under your waistband. That is just the start.
You think you would feel even a small tick as it breaks through your skin with its head. However, one of the first things the tick does is inject a nerve toxin into your body that numbs the area. Now the tick can dig deeper into your skin, then assemble a straw-like tube that will suck the blood out of your vein and into its body.
Your body naturally tries to heal wounds by clotting blood. The ticks use another chemical that helps thin your blood so that its straw-like structure does not get clogged with thickening blood. This is one well-engineered arachnid!
The tick can’t hold onto you using only its head and straw-like structure. Simple movement would toss the tick out of the body of whatever animal it has chosen. Ticks have engineered a solution to this problem too.
First, once their head is inside your body, the tick will put out barbed structures that make it difficult to pull the tick out. Second, the tick produces yet another chemical that serves as a glue. This substance hardens around the tick’s head and actually glues the head to your skin. That tick is not going anywhere until it wants to or until you work hard to force it out.
MORE THAN AN ANNOYANCE
Ticks are very annoying, but they can be far more. Ticks can carry several diseases that can make a person very sick. The ticks can carry different types of bacteria that produce symptoms similar to a bad cold or flu. The infected person does not suspect the illness came from a tick until the illness gets much worse. Luckily, most tick illnesses can be treated quickly with antibiotics. The other positive fact is that only a very small percentage of ticks carry the harmful bacteria.
Unless you stay inside all the time, which is not at all healthy, it is impossible to avoid ticks. However, in some new research from Louisiana State University, scientists fed ticks cow blood that had certain compounds added to it. The compounds interrupted the tick’s saliva production, which meant they could no longer feed on mammals.
No feeding means no blood exchange, and no blood exchange means no disease transmission. The concern that will need to be studied is whether that compound lingers in the environment and harms other life forms. Nature is not simple and, therefore, rarely provides a simple solution to problems.
COLUMBIA DAILY TRIBUNE
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