Tick Talk on the Clock
In which former tetrapod loyalist Amy Wray finds out that invertebrates are awesome too.
By Amy Wray
A scenic fall day in Connecticut: the leaves are changing, the air is crisp, a Shetland pony is eating an apple. Somewhere nearby, a Keats poem is being misquoted. Beneath crunchy fallen leaves—leaves that we imagine frolicking in but probably wouldn’t because, ew, bugs—there are, well, a lot of bugs. Specifically, there are ticks, patiently waiting on the forest floor for a fuzzy animal to come by so that they can latch onto it and feed upon its blood.
And a few weeks ago on a brisk fall day, I went out in the field to catch some ticks — for science reasons.*
I’ve caught a lot of things in my day for science reasons—mammals, birds, frogs, snakes—none of them bother me, and most of them I find really cute and interesting. Like most nature nerds, I caught bugs as a child, but even then usually stuck to the cutesy ones like ladybugs and caterpillars. The idea of intentionally going into the forest to catch hundreds of ticks sounds crazy, but I had the chance to join some tick-borne disease researchers in the field and just couldn’t pass up seeing what tick catching is all about.
So how does one go about catching ticks?
Well, a surprisingly effective method involves dragging a large piece of white corduroy along the forest floor and checking every few meters to see what you have caught. This happens to be extremely fun, because it’s super satisfying to catch the ticks and other freeloaders including but not limited to crickets, katydids, and spiders.
Of course, during these activities safety precautions such as tucking your pants into your socks (note to self: missed opportunity for wearing awesome dinosaur socks), must be taken, and afterwards you best believe I inspected every. Single. Inch. Of my skin. I actually did not find a single tick on myself, but a fellow tick-catching pal did find and remove a rather menacing spider from my hair. What are friends for?
Like most sane people, I’m not normally a big fan of bugs, including ticks, which are not “bugs” or insects, but rather arachnids like the spider that tried to Airbnb my ponytail. They have eight legs, duh. By wearing gloves—which provide personal if not psychological protection—and focusing intently on the task at hand, I found that somehow the ticks really didn’t bother me that much. At the beginning of the day I felt slightly afraid of them, and wondered about the likelihood that one would jump on my face and burrow into my eyeball. (SPOILER: that didn't happen.)
It turns out that the ticks kind of just chill in the corduroy; they don’t really make erratic movements the way that spiders do. I was pretty fascinated by they way they move, behave, and respond to each other (observational note: it’s not easy being a lady tick during mating season).
I ended up most concerned about the welfare of the little ticks — grabbing them by the leg with tweezers can’t be the most pleasant experience for them, and I also didn’t want to squish one and risk lowering my total tick loot (TTL, official science term). Fortunately, these little dudes are hardy and not easily squashed, although they are tricksters with a “play dead” defense that had me worried a few times.
Overall, it was a beautiful day to be in the field and I learned a TON about ticks that I didn’t know before—like that for the species of ticks we were catching, male ticks are black and female ticks are black and red.
I also affirmed one of the beliefs that is a core component of my identity: nobody should ever wear white corduroy. More importantly, I realized that sometimes fear can arise out of a lack of knowledge—and that when it comes to less charismatic creatures like bugs and spiders, learning about their biology helps make them a lot less scary and a lot more totally awesome.
Amy is a Master's student at Columbia University, where she studies pathogen diversity in common vampire bats. In her spare time she enjoys swimming in the ocean, reading about literary theory, wrangling chinchillas, and becoming friends with as many other people named Amy as possible.