Habitat, Diet, and Life Cycle of Ticks
As you look forward to warm summer weather, there’s one thing you shouldn’t forget; a rapid increase in tick populations. There are over 850 tick species worldwide and they are grouped into major categories depending on their body structures. A hard tick has a hard exterior covering known as a scutum while soft ticks lack the cover. Hard ticks belong to Ixodidae family as the soft species fall under Argasidae family.
While soft ticks can transmit diseases to animals only, hard ones can spread illnesses to both humans and animals. The vulnerability of your pets and family to these bloodsuckers is highest during summer months as compared to the rest periods of the year since it is when they are most active.
Knowing the breeding factors and life cycle of ticks as well as where they live and what they feed comes in handy for their control. Let’s start by having a look at their development.
Tick life cycle
All ticks, whether they are hard or soft, undergo four developmental stages, namely, egg, larva, nymph, and adult. After hatching, the newly-born tick larva requires a blood meal to advance to the next stage of life as a six-legged nymph. The tick requires a blood meal to evolve into each stage of its life. Its last blood meal as an adult is in order to reproduce, starting the life cycle again. Basically, the tick needs three distinct blood meals for it to complete its development.
It takes 3 to 36 months for ticks to complete their lifecycle. This period is dependent on the availability of animal hosts, their location and the temperatures of the surroundings.
After having enough blood meal, an adult female tick detaches itself from a host animal and falls to the ground to lay eggs. The tick lays thousands of eggs at a go and each of them is as tiny as 0.520 mm long. They are shiny and reddish-black in color, while some can be translucent. They are laid in a cluster with a shape and texture similar to that of a misplaced caviar.
If you visit a tick-infested area and the eggs happen to stick to your clothes, you can transfer them unconsciously into or near your home where they can later hatch (if the environment is conducive) and cause a tick infestation. Pets can also be agents of transferring these eggs through their bodies or fur.
Eggs hatch into larvae, which are in other words called seed ticks. The newly hatched larvae start to look for animal hosts such as small rodents or mammals to suck blood from. Interestingly, at this stage, the ticks can stay for 540 days without a blood meal. If a tick of this type is fortunate enough to find a host animal within this period, it will attach and suck blood from it for about five days before falling off.
Tick larva looks almost the same as adults but they are smaller. They have six legs as compared to an adult tick which has eight legs in total. Once it falls on the ground, the larva sheds its outer skin in a process known as molting and develops into a nymph. This happens particularly during late summer.
At the nymph stage, ticks look more like an adult since it has eight legs. Nevertheless, it is usually about 1/10th the size of an adult tick, being almost equal to the size of a poppy seed.
The tick will then wait for a second animal host for another blood meal. Considering that it is now larger and more developed than before, the tick will target larger animals like raccoons and possums. Nymphs hibernate during the winter season and resume feeding during spring months. The blood they suck during the spring helps them to molt and become adults during the summer. It is worth noting that the majority of Lyme disease cases are caused by ticks at the nymph stage because they are less noticeable and highly vulnerable to bacteria from their hosts.
After it sucks enough blood to sustain it in the nymph stage, a hard tick falls on the ground and then molts again to become an adult. The tick will again look for another host to suck blood in readiness for reproduction. At this stage, the tick hunts larger hosts like deer and dogs. Once engorged with blood, the adult tick falls off the host again and, in the case of a female, it later starts to lay eggs. Hard ticks mostly lay their eggs on the soil, especially in protected areas. However, the brown dog ticks, although they are hard ticks, lay their eggs indoors.
The entire fall season is the time for adult ticks to feed and breed. When the winter comes, males die off as the majority of females survive the harsh weather conditions although they remain passive during this period. The females resume laying eggs the following spring. The length of an adult tick is approximately 3mm to 5mm while its color can be brownish, brown-red or grayish, depending on its species.
Unlike hard ticks, soft ticks develop through numerous nymph stages before they become adults. Soft ticks also require two or three blood meals to evolve into each stage of life, unlike hard ticks who only need one. Additionally, the life cycles of soft ticks are usually longer (up to a maximum of several years). They can live for longer periods without blood meals as compared to hard ticks. Nevertheless, nearly everything else in the life cycles of soft ticks and hard ticks is the same, including the four developmental stages.
How ticks hunt
Ticks feed on the blood of mammals, birds, and reptiles. However, mammal blood is their favorite flavor. They climb on vegetation such as grass and tree branches as they wait for potential hosts to brush their bodies against them. When the time comes they spread their legs and cling on to them. They mostly prefer grass that’s long enough for them to be able to grasp onto passing hosts easily.
They have small structures called Haller’s organs for sensing the carbon dioxide exhaled by the possible warm-blooded animal hosts. This helps them to know when the animals are approaching. This way they can keep their legs ready to grasp on.
Where do ticks live?
Ticks tend to live in shady and moist areas at ground level near or at the resting grounds of potential hosts such as dogs, cats, humans, and rodents. Particularly, they like to hide in trash or plant litter piles in proximity to these hosts. In homes, ticks are likely to be found in lawns and gardens with tall grasses, where homesteads boarder forests/thickets as well as areas surrounding old stone walls.
Ticks avoid areas with direct sunlight since they are highly susceptible to drying off. Although ticks tend to live outdoors, they can get inside your house through pets or humans as they cling to their bodies or clothes (in case of people).
Equipped with this information, you will be able to identify ticks at their various developmental stages at their possible hideouts. Besides, you are now aware that these creatures are up to no good whenever they come to your home and so, you shouldn’t spare them even for a minute.