There are over 800 different species of ticks in the world and over 100 of these are found in North America. The good news is you will probably never encounter most species of ticks in your lifetime. Only a handful of tick species come into contact with humans.
Contrary to popular belief, a tick isn’t an insect, but rather falls into the category of arachnids. Other examples of arachnids include spiders, scorpions, and mites.
People who work, camp, play, or visit wooded and grassy areas are at the highest risk of getting bitten by ticks. Pets are also highly susceptible to tick bites due to their exploratory nature.
Anatomy of a Tick
Ticks are small in size and have a relatively flat body. Tick’s bodies are not segmented like we see with insects (head, thorax, and abdomen), and have four pairs of legs. It is because of the tick’s anatomy that it is classified as an arachnid rather than an insect.
Tick legs have tiny claws at the end and spiny hairs. These features allow the arachnid to grasp vegetation such as leaves, grass, and branches and to attach to their host’s body.
Although ticks vary from one species to another, you will find the following parts in the mouth of a tick:
Two palps: The palps move out of the way when the tick wants to feed
Two chelicerae: The tick uses the chelicerae to cut through the skin to feed
Hypostome: This part is needle-like and barbed just like a fishhook. This part holds the tick tightly in place while feeding.
Hard Vs. Soft Ticks
There are two main types of ticks, hard and soft ticks.
The main distinguishing feature between the two types of ticks is a kind of hard plate on the back known as a doral shield or scutum. Hard ticks have the scutum while soft ticks do not.
There are also a few other minor differences between the two types of ticks. Hard ticks have mouthparts that can be viewed from the top of the tick. Observing a soft tick from the top looks like it is missing mouthparts. Soft ticks have their mouthparts located on the underside of the body rather than at the front, which is the case with hard ticks.
Both types of ticks are capable of transmitting diseases. Soft ticks tend to be nocturnal, searching for hosts at night while hard ticks are typically more active during the day.
The Life Cycle of a Tick
Ticks typically go through four life stages and can take up to three years to undergo the entire life cycle.
Adult female ticks typically lay their eggs in spring. Despite their small size, female ticks can lay thousands of eggs. Ticks lay their eggs in one of two ways. Some species lay their eggs directly on the host while most detach from their host before laying their eggs on the ground.
Tick eggs are fairly easy to spot, sometimes more so than fully grown ticks. The eggs are translucent and are typically red and/or brown color and in clusters. While these eggs rarely transmit diseases, you’ll still want to be sure to eradicate them before they hatch in your yard.
The tick eggs hatch later in the summer and are known as larva at this point. They have to feed on a blood meal before maturing to the next stage and can survive up to a few months without a blood meal.
The larva typically targets small mammals such as mice, birds, and raccoons and can feed for up to three days. Once done feeding, the larvae will drop to the ground and molt. Molting is the process of shedding the outer layer of skin.
Some species of ticks will molt multiple times before developing to the next stage while others only shed their outer layer of skin once.
The larvae typically mature around August.
Larvae typically don’t carry any tick-borne diseases but may contract pathogens that cause Lyme disease when feeding on infected mammals.
Side note: Larva is singular while larvae are plural.
Once the larva molts it is referred to as nymph. This development happens around fall and spring.
The nymph is inactive in temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit although it will latch on to a host given the opportunity. The nymph begins to search for a blood meal once the weather warms up around May.
This waiting, and later latching on to a host, is known as questing.
The nymph feeds from its host for up to five days before dropping off and molting for the final stage in its development.
After molting, the tick is now an adult and ready for a blood meal. Ticks need to have a blood meal before they can mate and reproduce.
Adult male ticks typically die soon after mating while the females may lay one or more batches of eggs before they come to the end of their lifespan.
The lifecycle of a tick can take up to four years in ideal conditions from egg to adult.
9 Most Common Types of Ticks in North America
It is useful to learn how to identify the most common types of ticks in North America so you can take appropriate action in the event you or your pet has been bitten.
1. Eastern Blacklegged Tick
Scientific Name: Ixodes scapularis
Other Names: Deer tick
Location: Found across the eastern United States and most common in the Northeast
Diseases Spread: Borrelia burgdorferi (a bacterium that causes Lyme disease), Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis, Powassan disease, and Ehrlichiosis
The deer tick is the most common type of tick in the United States, and also the smallest of all the species of ticks. Adult Eastern blacklegged ticks grow to roughly the size of a sesame seed. This tick has a distinct red color with a black dorsal shield towards the head of the tick. The deer tick also has long, thin mouthparts.
The Eastern blacklegged tick is considered a 3-host tick. This means that the tick feeds from different hosts at each stage of its lifecycle. This tick has three life stages which are larva, nymph, and adult. It takes two years for this tick to grow from larva to adult.
Deer ticks are often found on deer, chipmunks, mice, and humans and ingest blood for 3 to 7 days depending on the tick’s life stage.
2. Western Blacklegged Tick
Scientific Name: Ixodes pacificus
Location: Mostly along the Pacific coast and especially in northern California
Diseases Spread: Lyme disease, Anaplasmosis
The Western blacklegged tick looks almost identical to the deer tick but with a few slight differences. This arachnid is about 3mm long, has a reddish abdomen, and a black head, legs, and dorsal shield. This tick also has long, thin mouthparts with no festoons.
The Western blacklegged tick rarely bites humans, instead preferring to feed on small animals including lizards, rodents, and birds. Adult females are more likely to feed on larger animals including deer and occasionally humans.
Western blacklegged ticks in the nymph stage are also known to feed occasionally on humans. This variety of tick has a relatively low infection rate among humans especially compared to the deer tick.
This is also a 3-host tick and goes through its life stages in 2 to 3 years.
3. Brown Dog Tick
Scientific Name: Rhipicephalus sanguineus
Other Names: Kennel tick
Location: Worldwide, throughout the United States
Diseases Spread: Canine ehrlichiosis, canine babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever
An adult brown dog tick grows to about 2.28 to 3.18 mm long and 1.11 to 1.68 mm width. The nymphs look identical to the adult ticks except that they are smaller.
The brown dog tick has a uniform reddish-brown color, elongated body shape, and does not have any markings on its back.
As the name suggests, brown dog ticks prefer to feed on dogs. This species of ticks is strange in that it can complete its entire life cycle indoors. Although many species of ticks are carried indoors on host animals, most cannot complete their entire life cycle indoors. This tick can equally complete its entire lifecycle outdoors.
Most cases of brown dog ticks are found inside homes with pets or in kennels. There is a very low rate of infection from these ticks among humans although they may infect a human with Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Outdoor Brown dog ticks commonly attach themselves to rabbits, deer, possums, and raccoons which can then introduce the ticks to people’s yards and later picked up by pets or humans.
4. American Dog Tick
Scientific Name: Dermacentor variabilis
Other Names: Wood tick
Location: Predominantly found in the United States, Pacific Northwest, east of the Rocky Mountains, and in certain parts of Mexico and Canada
Diseases Spread: Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Tularemia,
Adult American dog ticks have 8 legs, with an oval, flattened body. These ticks are brown in color with grayish or whitish markings on their bodies. An engorged (fed) adult can be up to 15mm while an un-engorged adult about 5mm.
This is another type of tick commonly found on dogs, hence its name American dog tick. These ticks are also most commonly found in the United States.
Nymphs prefer smaller hosts such as mice while adult ticks prefer larger mammals including deer, coyotes, opossums, raccoons, skunks, dogs, and humans.
These ticks are most active during spring and early summer where exposure is most likely. Adult American dog ticks can survive for up to two years without a blood meal.
5. Lone Star Tick
Scientific Name: Amblyomma americanum
Location: Most commonly found in Southeastern US and eastern seaboard, Midwest and the eastern United States
Diseases Spread: Ehrlichiosis, Tularemia
The lone star tick has a round body and is reddish-brown in color. This is one of the easiest ticks to identify owing to its single white marking or dot in the center of its back.
The lone star tick is an aggressive tick that is known for biting humans. Adult ticks prefer to feed on large mammals, including domestic animals such as goats, sheep, horses, cattle, cats, and dogs.
The lone star tick can go through all its life stages in a single year; from larvae to egg-laying female adult. Adult ticks are most active between March and May. These ticks are commonly found in wooded areas and noted to be most prevalent in areas with a high population of white-tailed deer.
6. Gulf Coast Tick
Scientific Name: Amblyomma maculatum
Location: Throughout the Americas, prevalent along the Gulf Coast of the United States
Diseases Spread: Rickettsia parkeri (a form of spotted fever)
Adult Gulf Coast ticks can grow up to 6mm in length and have a dark brown dorsal shield with silvery-white markings close to the head, including three broken lateral stripes. The lateral stripes on male ticks are interconnected while the dorsal shield covers the entire top of the tick.
This tick has long, rectangular mouthparts.
The Gulf Coast tick is particularly devastating to livestock, and adult ticks prefer feeding on the exterior part of animal ears. Tick bites on cattle cause severe abscesses and inflammation and make the host animal more susceptible to primary screwworm.
Adult Gulf Coast ticks prefer to feed on large mammals including pets, swine, horses, cattle, and white-tailed deer. Adult ticks can survive for up to 16 months without a blood meal.
7. Groundhog Tick
Scientific Name: Ixodes cookei
Location: Mostly found in Eastern and Central United States, parts of Eastern Canada
Diseases Spread: Powassan virus
The groundhog tick looks much like the blacklegged tick so much so that a microscope is the most reliable way to tell the two ticks apart.
The groundhog tick grows to about the size of a sesame seed and has a lozenge-shaped dorsal shield compared to the oval shield of the blacklegged tick.
Adult female groundhog ticks have a reddish-tan to tan color and darker at the dorsal shield compared to the rest of the back.
Groundhog ticks typically prefer smaller hosts such as raccoons, skunks, weasels, minks, foxes, and squirrels. These ticks thrive in subtropical climates, particularly shaded sandy areas.
Groundhog ticks rarely feed on humans although there have been isolated cases of humans being bitten. These ticks are most active during the summer months and peak in numbers and activity around July.
An adult tick can live up to a year without a blood meal and is mostly considered a nuisance tick with a low risk of infection to humans or pets.
8. Rocky Mountain Wood Tick
Scientific Name: Dermacentor andersoni
Other Names: Wood tick
Location: Primarily found around the Rocky Mountains including in states such as Nebraska, Arizona, and South Dakota
Diseases Spread: Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Tularemia, Colorado tick fever
The Rocky Mountain wood tick has an oval shape with a flat back. The tick is brown in color but turns grayish when engorged. Adult ticks can grow up to 16.5mm when engorged.
As the name suggests, the Rocky Mountain wood tick is typically found in the states around the Rocky Mountains and goes through its lifecycle in two to three years. This tick prefers larger mammals but larvae and nymphs will feed on small rodents.
Although adults Rocky Mountain ticks are primarily responsible for transmitting pathogens to humans, all life stages have the potential to transmit diseases to humans and animals.
These ticks prefer lower elevations and are mostly found in lightly wooded areas, shrublands, grasslands, and along trails. A bite from a wood tick can cause ascending paralysis which begins to clear after 24-72 hours of the tick’s removal.
9. Winter Tick
Scientific Name: Dermacentor albipictus
Other Names: Moose tick
Location: Throughout most of the United States and Canada, abundant in northern New Hampshire
Diseases spread: Not known to transmit diseases to humans, causes severe anemia, hair loss, skin irritation, and distraction from feeding in wildlife
Adult female winter ticks have a reddish-brown color with a cream-colored dorsal shield. Adult males are dark brown in color with a white crosshatch pattern on the back.
Winter ticks can grow up to 15 mm and look much like American dog ticks except slightly longer.
Winter ticks are unlike most other tick species in that they typically go through their entire lifecycle on a single host. The winter tick is most active during fall, winter, and spring but not active in the summer.
These ticks rarely come into contact with humans and are typically found on wildlife including moose, elk, horses, beavers, bears, and deer. Winter ticks are most devastating to moose which are not as efficient in grooming as other species of wildlife like deer.
How to Prevent Ticks from Biting You
Ticks carry many diseases, some of which are potentially fatal to both humans and animals. The best defense against a tick bite is preventing the bite in the first place.
To prevent against tick bites:
- Use chemical repellent, preferably those with picaridin, permethrin, and DEET. It also helps if you can wear permethrin-treated clothing if you are at high risk of coming into contact with ticks.
- If the weather allows, tuck your pants into your socks. This may not be a great look but covering up helps to prevent ticks from latching onto your bare legs.
- Check your dogs for pests regularly before they enter the home. American dog ticks are especially notorious for latching onto dogs and finding their way into the home.
- It helps if you can keep wildlife and other animals that may carry ticks from accessing your yard. Common culprits include woodchucks, mice, and deer. Also clear shrubs and leaf piles from around the house where ticks like to hide. Follow our step-by-step guide for getting rid of ticks from your yard.
- Do a tick inspection of your clothing immediately after a high-risk activity such as camping or hiking. Shower immediately and wash your clothes as soon as possible. Putting the clothes in the dryer for a few minutes at high heat can also kill ticks.
In the event that you are bitten by a tick, use a pair of tweezers to grab the tick firmly at the head or mouth. Pull slowly but firmly until the tick releases the skin.
Avoid twisting or otherwise moving the tick aside from pulling it out. This movement can cause the tick to break, leaving the mouth or other parts of the tick in the skin.
Wash the wound and your hands with soap and water and apply alcohol on the wound. Visit a doctor as soon as you begin to develop flu-like symptoms or develop a rash.
Infographic: Tick Borne Diseases
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