One of the things I’ve been delighted to discover since moving to Seattle is the Scarabs, an informal group of arthropod enthusiasts that meets monthly at the Burke Museum. The keynote presentation of last week’s meeting was “Rod’s Tick Talk,” and featured Burke Museum arachnologist Rod Crawford presenting some information on ticks. With a punny title like that, how could I resist? As it turns out, although I’ve known about and encountered ticks for much of my life, I hadn’t given them much thought, because it was an extremely informative presentation.

Ticks are little arachnids, of course, with their eight legs, so this puts them in the same broad category as spiders, but they are not spiders! Not at all! They’re one of the more noticeable members of the Mite clan. Like the psuedoscorpion (who is not a tick, despite a similar size and body shape) or the vinagaroon, it’s a spider cousin that shares many features, but also lacks a substantial number of them. Ticks don’t make webs, for example, and I think we can all agree that we shouldn’t let them ever develop that technology.

Throughout the talk, this little class of critters just got worse and worse! They only eat blood– they’re not occasional sanguinivores like mosquitoes, who seem to need blood primarily as fuel for egg-laying. Their front legs have a little sensory widget on them known as Haller’s organ, which allows them to sense motion, “smell” the air for respired CO2 or the various chemical indicators of critters (sweat residues, for example), as well as the warm bodies of endothermic hosts. They kind of made me think of this guy. And prior to last Monday’s lecture, I didn’t even know ticks had eyes… but, as mentioned in the comic, their presence on the tick’s, uh… “shoulders” makes them somehow even more disturbing. And that whole “inflated sack of blood” thing they do, with their little legs sticking out? Ugh. I’m not even going to point you at a picture of that.

The most bothersome part about them, of course, is their tendency to spread disease, which seems to be because they’re immune to a whole bunch of stuff, so they just tow it around, potentially infecting the things they bite with their anesthetic (but obviously the opposite of “antiseptic”… just “septic”) backwash. If they have a value to mankind, though, it’s that they produce a whole cocktail of interesting chemicals that could have some potential medical value. Anesthetics, anti-coagulants, immune-suppressors… There’s probably a fortune to be made in mining biological compounds out of ticks, and no one will care how many of them you dissect along the way, because they’re ticks.

Oh, and it seems like I should mention it, just in case you don’t know how to remove a tick. There’s all sorts of folk remedies out there (poke it with a smoldering match, etc.), but it seems like the current best-solution is to very carefully and very slowly pull it out. Easier said than done, I’m sure, but I guess if you’ve got one on you right now, go ahead and find some tweezers or something. Take care not to crush it, and gently give it a steady, backwards pull to encourage it to back itself out. Evidently ticks aren’t any more interested in leaving their mouthparts embedded in you than you are, so they’ll gradually disengage themselves. Once removed, do whatever you want with the little bugger. If it’s convenient, I’d go ahead and save it just in case you need to show it to someone regarding fever, chills, rash, etc., but I’m not your boss, so do whatever. Heck, maybe you could turn the tables and EAT IT. Take that, tick! Did you see that coming, with your fancy leg organs and your tiny, unsettlingly placed eyes?