Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Hunting for ticks

No, I am not referring to the hunt for stowaway ticks in various body crevices after a hike. I am talking about actually going out on a hike to look for ticks on purpose! What mad hatters would do this? I did last weekend, along with my friend and collaborator Larisa, a veterinary entomologist.

Our mission was to collect ticks for a research project, which brings me to why there is a post on ticks in this Herpblog. Briefly, the goal is to infect lizards with tick larvae to study various aspects of host-parasite relations in a lab setting. (By the way, the root word for herpetology is herpetos, which is Greek for "crawling," another very tick-like word!) We collected adult Western Black-legged ticks (Ixodes pacificus) in order to breed them and obtain larvae.

Larisa and I met at Montana de Oro State Park, an area with sufficiently moist vegetation to support heaps of these ticks. At first glance, the area looks quite dry:But when you hike into the trail a bit, it becomes quite moist and lush:

Collecting ticks is easy, and fun! We use "flags," which are big pieces of fabric attached to a metal pole. We simply drag the flags along the ground as we hike, periodically checking them for unsuspecting ticks that thought they were grabbing onto a big piece of animal fur. Here is a photo of Larisa flagging (Incidentally, if you take a close look at her belly, you'll see that she currently has more than a casual interest in parasites! :-):

And here is a photo of endoparasite-free me:

Female Ixodes are larger than males. Here is a photo of a female (left) and male (right) on the flagging:

We caught about 60 ticks in a couple of hours and placed them in these vials:

We are going to place all of the ticks on a horse on campus to breed them. The males will crawl around the horse looking for females, and they will mate with the females. Larisa told me that the males deliver sperm to the females through their mouths! The females will attach to the horse and become engorged, and we will then take them into the lab and put them in a humid chamber, where they will lay their eggs, and thousands of little tick larvae will emerge. Then we will finally have the larvae we need to infect lizards!

After a day of hiking and tick-collecting, I spent the evening lounging with my tick-free buddy Darwin on the couch.


Laini Taylor said...

I suppose it takes a non-scientist to say, "Oh, that poor horse, you fiends!" And also to say, "Gross!" ha ha.

As for endoparasites -- ?????!!!!!

Alexandra S said...

Hi Emily! Welcome to the blogging life! Did Laini ever tell you about the time we went hunting for ticks when in college? And then we sauteed them in some marinara sauce-yum! Very, very tasty. Anyway, I look forward to reading about your wild and crazy lizardian life!

Anonymous said...

...just hard for me to get my head around ticks. i'll credit to far too many tick/chigger experiences in the ozarks looking for timbers. the last photo sums it up...darwin, bb, and snakeymama. photo credit to mr. photo-sassypants. next week when you're here (YIPPEE), you'll have to come up with a "rev permissible" pet name for said photo-sassypants.

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