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Our love of the outdoors can bring us into contact will all sorts of unpleasant organisms, though few are as widespread as the tick.
These vampiric arachnids can be found across the globe, and many are responsible for transmitting disease. Ticks have been documented transmitting a wide range of protozoan, bacterial, viral, and fungal pathogens to humans, pets, and livestock. And while there are roughly 80 different tick species that can be found in the continental US (and more than 800 found worldwide), there are 10 species that really stand out. With tick season right around the corner in most areas, we hope this tick-identification gallery will help you limit your risk and teach you a little more about these complex and creepy creatures.
The life of a tick
Despite our occasional suspicions that ticks only crave human blood (a frequent thought while I’m sitting up against a tree trunk during spring gobbler season), it turns out that most ticks will feed on most living animals, including birds, mammals, reptiles, and even a few amphibians. These crab-like arthropods have four life stages—egg, larvae, nymph, and adult—and most ticks prefer to have a different host animal at each stage of life. Tick larvae emerge from their eggs and, depending on the species, they may or may not be disease carriers at this early stage.
After spending part of their life cycle on small animals, they often acquire pathogens, some of which cause disease in humans and other animals. Once the larvae have fed for a few days (usually on the smallest animals, like birds or mice), they drop off and molt into nymphs. While both nymphs and larvae are very small, larvae only have six legs, while nymphs are larger and have eight legs (like the adults). Once the nymphs have fed for a few days, they will drop off to molt again and become adults.
Adult females eagerly attack humans and larger animals in order to engorge themselves with blood. Once full, they drop off to lay an egg mass, which can contain as many as 4,000 individual eggs (this depends on the tick size and species).
Scientific name: Ixodes scapularis
Native range: Found in Eastern half of the continental US
Distinctive features: The very dark brown legs are a hallmark of the species, giving rise to the “black-legged” name. The adult females also have a reddish-brown coloration to the back half of their bodies.
Active season: The larvae and nymphs are active during the late spring and summer, particularly in wooded areas. The adults are typically active from October through May in conditions where daytime temperatures stay above freezing.
Pathogens transmitted: This species is the principal vector for Lyme disease in the eastern United States (especially New England). They also transmit the organisms that cause anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and Powassan disease (a form of viral encephalitis that can occur as a co-infection with Lyme disease).
Habitat and details: Deer tick larvae, nymphs, and adults favor wooded habitats. The young ones live in leaf litter and the adult females prey upon the larger things that roam the forest—including us.
Scientific name: Dermacentor albipictus
Native range: Found throughout the continental US
Distinctive features: Adults of this species have light brown legs and a dark brown body.
Active season: Larval ticks infest their host in the fall, molting into nymphs and adults while hiding in thick fur or hair of large animals. The winter tick may stay on the same animal host through all of the tick’s life stages.
Pathogens transmitted: Thankfully, winter ticks have not been documented passing diseases to humans or domestic animals.
Habitat and details: The adult winter ticks favor large game animals and are particularly fond of deer, elk, and moose. One anemic moose was found with an estimated 75,000 of these ticks attached to its hide. Lucky for us, winter ticks rarely feed upon humans.
American dog tick
Scientific name: Dermacentor variabilis
Native range: California and the Eastern half of the continental US
Distinctive features: When the dark larvae molt into nymphs, they take on a light tan color. The adult males are mottled with brown and tan spots, while adult females have a brown body with a spotted tan “shield” on their head.
Active season: Nymphs are active May through July, while larvae are active from late April until September. Adults are active from April through August.
Pathogens transmitted: Adult American dog ticks can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) and tularemia.
Habitat and Details: American dog ticks prefer grassy areas and scrubland, frequently "hunting" along paths and trails. Nymphal dog ticks prefer small animals to feed upon, rarely attaching to humans.
Lone star tick
Scientific name: Amblyomma americanum
Native range: Found from Texas through Nebraska, and out to the Eastern seaboard
Distinctive features: Adult females have a very prominent white dot in the middle of their back. Adult males can bear whitish spots around the outer edge of their body.
Active season: Larvae are active in July, August, and September. Nymphs are most common May through August. Adults are often active from April through August.
Pathogens transmitted: Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) and ehrlichiosis is transmitted to humans by the lone star tick. STARI (Southern tick-associated rash illness) can also be transmitted by these bites.
Habitat and details: This species is mostly found in woodlands that contain thick underbrush, and they are also found in animal bedding areas. The larvae are not known to harbor communicable diseases, but the nymphal and adult stages can transmit the pathogens listed above. Lone Star ticks will feed on humans in all stages of their life.
Brown dog tick
Scientific name: Rhipicephalus sanguineus
Native range: Found worldwide and throughout the entire continental US, though more common in southern states
Distinctive features: The adult ticks have brown bodies and brown legs, though the females can have a slight yellowish coloration to their legs and faint mottling on their body.
Active season: I’m sorry to report that the larval, nymphal, and adult stages are active year-round.
Pathogens transmitted: All life stages of the brown dog tick can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) to dogs and humans. Nymphs and adults can also transmit the agents of canine ehrlichiosis and canine babesiosis.
Habitat and details: A common tick found in lawns, fields and grassy areas, the brown dog tick can go through its complete life cycle in as few as three months (all of which can occur indoors, in kennels and homes).
Rocky Mountain wood tick
Scientific name: Dermacentor andersoni
Native range: Found throughout the Rocky Mountains and adjoining states. This species is typically found at elevations between 4,000 and 10,500 feet.
Distinctive features: These brown-colored ticks resemble dog ticks, and similarly, the females bear a horseshoe-shaped tan pattern on their head. Heartier than most ticks, adults can go almost two years without feeding on blood, while surviving the harsh mountain weather and deep cold of their native range.
Active season: Larvae and nymphs are active from March through October, while adult wood ticks can be active from January through November.
Pathogens transmitted: Colorado tick fever is caused by a virus transmitted by the Rocky Mountain wood tick at all life stages. Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) and tularemia can also occur from the bite of these ticks.
Habitat and details: Rocky Mountain wood ticks are found predominantly in shrub, grasslands, and lightly wooded areas. Rarely, but alarmingly, the Rocky Mountain wood tick can cause temporary paralysis in pets and humans, due to a potent neurotoxin in the saliva of an adult female tick. This rare condition dissipates within 24 to 72 hours after the tick is removed.
Scientific name: Amblyomma cajennense
Native range: This tick is found in the south central US, and its range reaches into South America.
Distinctive features: The adults of this species have yellowish-brown legs (essentially a toffee color). Males have tan bodies with brown mottling across their entire body, except for the very rear edge. Females have a brown body with tan mottling on only on their head.
Active season: Due to its warm native range, this tick is active year-round.
Pathogens transmitted: The cayenne tick can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) and is an agent of equine piroplasmosis, Theileria equi.
Habitat and details: Cayenne ticks are commonly found in grassy areas in temperate, sub-tropical and tropical climates. Often found in fields, they favor horses as a host. Oddly enough, these creepy crawlies may not be all bad. The saliva of cayenne ticks is currently being studied for medicinal purposes, as it contains a protein which may be able to treat blood clots and cancer.
Gulf Coast tick
Scientific name: Amblyomma maculatum
Native range: Found along the US Gulf Coast and up the Eastern seaboard to Maryland and also through Central America
Distinctive features: The adults have caramel colored legs. Females have a brown body with tan coloration on their head. Male bodies are spotted with tan and brown.
Active season: In warmer climates, the larvae and nymphs are generally more active in the winter; while they are more active in the summer in cooler environments. The adults may be active at any time.
Pathogens transmitted: Rickettsia parkeri and Hepatozoon americanum are transmitted to humans by the Gulf Coast tick.
Habitat and details: The Gulf coast tick favors humid coastal forests and areas with dense shrub vegetation. These ticks are non-specific when looking for hosts, and will feed on birds and mammals of all sizes, including humans.
Scientific name: Ixodes pacificus
Native range: Found along the Western seaboard and in parts of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona
Distinctive features: The adult females have a brown body and legs, with a darker brown head. Males have brown legs and various colors on their body, including dark brown, light brown and reddish brown patterning.
Active season: The larvae and nymphs are active during the spring and summer, when they begin seeking hosts (birds, small mammals and lizards). Larvae typically don’t feed on humans. The adults are typically active from October through May, on warmer days.
Pathogens transmitted: Anaplasmosis and Lyme disease are transmitted by the Western-blacklegged tick. They have also been found to carry Borrelia miyamotoi, which is closely related to the bacterium that causes tick-borne relapsing fever.
Habitat and details: Larvae and nymphs can be found in leaf litter, on mossy rocks, logs and tree trunks. Adults will favor grassy, brushy, or wooded areas, especially alongside trails. This species is the principle culprit for Lyme disease in humans in the western US.
Pacific Coast tick
Scientific name: Dermacentor occidentalis
Native range: Found along the Western seaboard of the continental US, from Oregon to Baja California. This species is also found in Mexico.
Distinctive features: Adult females have brown legs with a slightly darker brown body. Adult males have a more greyish coloration, with tiny dark speckles.
Active season: Larvae are active from summer through winter, peaking in July. Nymphs are the most active during late winter and early spring. Adults are active year-round, but their peak activity occurs in April and May.
Pathogens transmitted: The new disease, 364D rickettsiosis (Rickettsia phillipi, its proposed scientific name), has been transmitted to humans by nymph and adult Pacific Coast ticks in California. All life stages of this tick can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) to humans and pets. These animals can also transmit tularemia to humans and pets, as well as bovine anaplasmosis to cattle.
Habitat and details: The Pacific Coast tick is often found in the chaparral and brush along trails.
Tick bite prevention
The best way to avoid tick bites and tick-borne illnesses (and still enjoy the outdoors) is to take every reasonable precaution before heading out. Make sure you use multiple defenses against these little blood-suckers.
Wear long pants and tuck your pant legs into your socks. Yes, you look silly and I know it’s hot in the summer, but it’s worth the extra protection.
Treat your outdoor clothing with permethrin, which not only repels ticks but kills them. This stuff is pretty toxic, so follow the product’s instructions carefully, and avoid getting permethrin on your skin.
Use a strong repellent, and use it often. Products containing DEET should be reapplied a few times daily, while natural repellents (based on plant oils) should be reapplied hourly. That’s not a typo, spray on more of the natural stuff hourly.
Check often for ticks. Check the outside of your clothing a couple times an hour, and check underneath your clothing a couple times a day, especially in tick heavy environments.
Don’t delay tick removal. Quick and complete tick removal can prevent disease transmission in many cases.
Even after an outdoor enthusiast has been armed with information and armored in DEET, you’ll still end up with a hungry tick stuck in your skin every once in a while. Don’t panic. You can use a tick removal gadget or a plain old set of tweezers to remove the offending arthropod.
With any store-bought tick removal tool, follow the instructions provided. And in the event that you only have tweezers, grab the tick by the mouth parts (as close to your skin as possible). Hold it steady and pull straight upward with steady pressure. Some have recently advocated a twisting method of removal, but this can cause it to break off in your skin. Don’t grasp the abdomen. You can pop the tick, or worse, push infected blood back into your body.
And don’t waste your time by “painting” the tick with Vaseline or nail polish. You want to remove it as soon as possible, not wait around for it to drop off on its own. And if you do happen to break the tick into pieces, remove any tick remnants in your skin with sharp pointed tweezers. After removing a tick, scrub the area with soap and water, alcohol, or iodine. Dispose of the tick in your campfire when you’re in the field, or flush it down the toilet when removing them at home.
Should you be unable to remove broken mouth parts with your tweezers, keep the wound clean and the skin (and bug parts) will eventually grow out.