Also Known as Black Legged Ticks
Deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis) are also known as blacklegged ticks. These ticks are often mistaken for brown dog ticks. Named for their propensity to feed on white-tailed deer, these ticks may also feed on other large mammals as hosts, including humans. Humans, considered accidental hosts of deer ticks, may contract Lyme disease from bites. Livestock and domestic animals can also be hosts. They are primarily found in the eastern half of the U.S.
What do deer ticks look like?
Deer ticks can sometimes be confused with other tick species. Like other ticks, their bodies are flattened and they possess eight legs. They appear particularly similar to brown dog ticks.
Size of the deer tick
The size of the deer tick can vary depending on the sex of the tick and feeding state. Approximately the size of a sesame seed, a female adult deer tick measures about 2.7 mm in length. The males are smaller. These ticks are orangish brown in color but may change to be rust or brown-red in hue following feeding. The body becomes engorged after a meal and may expand considerably. Regardless, the deer tick’s body is approximately half as large as that of the common American dog tick.
Deer ticks are found in many locations where their preferred host, the white-tailed deer, dwell. They are present throughout the majority of the eastern United States and tend to live in wooded areas and along trails in forests. Deer ticks reside on the tips of grass and leaves along these trails, enabling them to crawl directly onto the skin or fur of a passing host. Some of these trails may be found in suburban areas where forests meet subdivisions. Deer and other animals are often active in these areas.
The life cycle of the deer tick takes approximately two years to complete. Their development is dependent on environment and the availability of hosts. Under favorable conditions, they may be capable of developing in less than one year.
All three of the deer tick’s development stages require blood meals from hosts. Deer ticks attach themselves to and feed on one host during the larval stage, another during the nymphal stage and a third during their adult stage. Deer tick larvae and nymphs both molt after feeding.
After laying eggs, female deer ticks die. However, one female is capable of laying up to 3,000 eggs. Six-legged larvae emerge from these eggs and begin to search for a host. Larvae feed for approximately four days before dropping to the ground to molt into nymphs. Resulting nymphs have eight legs and search again for hosts. They, too, will feed and molt into adults.
Larval and nymphal deer ticks prefer small hosts and are more likely to feed on rodents than on large animals. Adults are fond of white-tailed deer and sometimes also feed on humans as hosts. The larval feeding stage is responsible for the tick’s contraction of most diseases, while these diseases are transferred to humans and livestock during the nymphal and adult stages.
Deer ticks begin life as eggs and develop through larval and nymphal stages before becoming adults. Females lay eggs in suitable areas close to vegetation. Larvae hatch and immediately begin searching for hosts, which tend to be small animals such as mice. It is during these early feeding stages that ticks contract diseases such as Lyme disease. These diseases are transmitted to hosts during the nymphal and adult feedings.
Deer tick bites are virtually painless, and victims often do not recognize that they have been bitten until symptoms appear. Campers and hikers should always check themselves thoroughly. Deer tick females feed for extended periods and can be found attached to the skin of bite victims. If there are medical concerns, consult a physician. Read more about deer tick bites.
Lyme disease is a debilitating disease caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. Deer ticks are the most common vectors of this bacterium. Lyme disease is easily transmitted to human and animal hosts through the deer tick’s bite.
Although deer ticks do not jump or fly, they remain in grassy areas frequented by dogs, cats and other warm-blooded hosts. As these hosts brush against the grass, deer ticks cling to the coat of the animal and begin to feed. Because the ticks potentially bite a different host for the next meal, infected ticks are capable of spreading Lyme disease quickly throughout a population.
The small size of the deer tick is also a factor in the prevalence of Lyme disease. Their bites are not painful, and most victims do not notice them until they have become engorged from prolonged feeding.
Removal of deer ticks can be difficult. If a specimen is crushed, infected bodily fluids are released and may further contaminate a bite victim. Contact a physician for any medical concerns.
Due to the arachnid’s small size, it can be difficult to locate the deer tick on its host. These parasites attach themselves to hosts and hide within the fur, hair or feathers.
On humans, deer ticks are commonly found in the areas near the nape of the neck or along the lower scalp. Extreme care must be exercised when removing a tick from the skin of any host, as bodily fluids may be released if the tick is crushed or punctured. The most efficient removal method includes the use of tweezers or forceps. It is important to remove the entire tick, including its embedded mouthparts.