Ticks (especially the Lyme disease-carrying varieties) provide plenty of reasons for us to shiver. They burrow into your scalp or the scruff of your dog’s neck and hang on for a whole week, hoarding as much blood as their expandable bodies can hold.
How do they do it? Researchers have finally seen and recorded the creepy spectacle for everyone’s viewing displeasure.
The researchers looked at European wood ticks (Ixodes ricinus), which are closely related to American deer ticks. Both species transmit the dreaded Lyme disease. Researchers placed the ticks on the ears of euthanized hairless mice under a microscope and then started rolling the cameras. What they saw was not drilling or puncturing as scientists once hypothesized. The reality was much more disturbing than that: a combination of saws and swords and barbs.
The New York Times describes the tick’s trick like this:
As it cuts, it looks as if it is doing the breast stroke with its pair of minuscule mouth saws. That movement cuts and pulls back the skin, plunging the hypostome deeper with each stroke, barb by gruesome barb, which, of course, makes them difficult to extract.
See it for yourself:
In addition to ratcheting its way to the blood source, the tick has to hang on for days while it fills with blood. This could explain why it has evolved such a complicated system of entry, compared to other blood-sucking bugs. One of the study’s researchers, parasitologist Dania Richter, explains in the Huffington Post:
“Mosquitos or other biting flies stay on the host for a very short time. The tick has a much different challenge, which is to be in there to stay.”
A Tick’s Tricks
So while you feel a mosquito bite right away, ticks work hard to go unnoticed—inserting pain relievers, anti-clotting agents and anti-inflammatory substances as they slash their way to your blood vessels. The research, which appears in Proceedings of the Royal Society B this week, also includes an animated version of the insertion which is almost more disturbing to watch:
Despite all that, Richter said she thinks the ticks are beautiful. We, however, have a different takeaway: It’s no accident that the word “tick” is 75 percent “ick.”
To find out more about ticks and the disease-causing bacteria they carry, check out Discover’s latest digital e-single called “Ticked: The Battle Over Lyme Disease in the South.”
Image and video credit: Richter, et al. Proccedings of the Royal Society B