Range and habitat
Tick species are widely distributed around the world, 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. 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. 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.
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.
Diet and feeding behaviors
Ticks satisfy all of their nutritional requirements on a diet of blood, a practice known as hematophagy. They extract the blood by cutting a hole in the host's epidermis, into which they insert their hypostome, likely keeping the blood from clotting by excreting an anticoagulant. Blood is a requirement for ticks surviving and moving from one stage of their life to the next. As such, ticks unable to find a host to feed on will die.
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 onto 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. Depending on the species and the life stage, preparing to feed can take from ten minutes to two hours. On locating a suitable feeding spot, the tick grasps the skin and cuts into the surface.
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. Larval ticks hatch with six legs, acquiring the other two after a blood meal and molting into the nymph stage.
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.
Life cycle and reproduction
Both ixodid and argasid ticks undergo three primary stages of development: larval, nymphal, and adult. 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.
Argasid ticks, unlike ixodid ticks, may go through several nymphal stages, requiring a meal of blood each time. Their lifecycles 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.
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, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, relapsing fever, tularemia, tick-borne meningoencephalitis, Colorado tick fever, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, babesiosis, and cytauxzoonosis. 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.
Tick bites may also induce a delayed allergy to red meat, involving 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.
In general, the best way to remove an adult tick is mechanically. 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. Proprietary tick removal tools are also available. It is important to disinfect the bite area thoroughly after removal of the tick. 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. 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.
Population control measures
Topical (drops/dust) flea/tick medicines may be toxic to animals and humans. Phenothrin (85.7%) in combination with methoprene was a popular topical flea/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 US 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.
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.
When the deer population was reduced by 74% at a 248-acre (100-ha) study site in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for example, the number of nymphal ticks collected at the site decreased by 92%. 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 about 77 to about 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.
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.