Vail Daily column: Start watching for ticks

I think one of the worst feelings when I am out hiking is the little tickle of a wood tick crawling up my skin. For me, this discovery is a sure sign that spring is turning to summer. Once I discover a tick, my paranoia grows, and I am certain that I will soon feel others. We are lucky compared to other parts of the country in that our tick population is relatively small, but they are certainly creatures we should be aware of. Despite annual encounters with ticks, I had never really taken time to study them. To my surprise, I found that ticks are actually interesting creatures.

Wood ticks are arachnids, cousins to spiders. They have a head, abdomen, and eight legs. Ticks are about the size of pencil erasers. They are dark gray to brown in color with white patterns on the back of the abdomen. Ticks generally live on tall grasses or dense underbrush. Locally, I find them after hiking though sagebrush communities. Ticks crawl to the top of grasses or tips of branches and wait for a host animal to walk past. A sensory apparatus called a haller’s organ helps them to sense odor, heat and humidity emitted by mammals and birds. Ticks then jump onto a host animal and try to drink their blood.

Ticks actually depend on three different host animals for blood food during the course of their life cycles. An adult female tick lays her eggs on the ground in leaf litter in the spring time. She can lay 3,000-5,000 eggs. Within the next month, larvae the size of the period at the end of this sentence will hatch from the eggs. To feed, a larva attaches itself to a small mammal, like a mouse or chipmunk. The larva drinks blood for a couple days until it becomes engorged and releases itself from the host animal and drops to the ground. The larva will then molt into a nymph, which is the next life stage.

Nymphs stay inactive during the winter months. A tick can stay in the nymph stage for up to 300 days. In the spring, a nymph must find a second host animal, such as a rabbit or ground squirrel, on which to prey. Again, the nymph engorges and releases from the host animal, dropping to the ground. At this point, the nymph molts and becomes an adult tick. An adult tick can live for about a year and a half without food, while patiently waiting for a suitable host like a dog, deer or human to pass by. After a third and final feeding, adult ticks mate. The male tick dies shortly after. The female tick goes dormant until springtime, at which time she will lay her eggs and dies.

It is important to check for ticks after you spend time outside. Ticks in the Rocky Mountain region can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever or Colorado tick fever. Not all ticks carry these diseases, but prevention is key. You can protect yourself against the uncomfortable tickle and ensuing paranoia of having a tick crawling on your skin by dressing defensively. Light colored long-sleeved shirts, long pants, socks and shoes or boots are our first line of defense. If you are in an area with a lot of ticks, it is a good idea to tuck your pants into your socks too. Bug sprays may also help keep you invisible to ticks. Most importantly, once you return home do a thorough tick check of your whole body to make sure tyou have not acquired a parasite on your hike. Remember to also check your pets for ticks after they have been playing in the woods.

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Most people don’t like ticks; after all, it’s hard to love a creature that wants to suck the life blood from your body. But don’t let fear of ticks and other creepy crawlies keep you from exploring the outdoors. Ticks, like all creatures, are simply part of the cycle of life, and we are a part of their food chain. Bon Appetit!

Lara Carlson is the community programs director at Walking Mountains Science Center. She can be found throughout the summer hiking with her dog and avoiding wood ticks.

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