ScienceShot: How Ticks Get Under Your Skin

© Dania Richter

ScienceShot: How Ticks Get Under Your Skin

Sid is a freelance science journalist.

An intricate system of hooks and barbs allows the ticks responsible for much of Lyme disease in Europe to latch on to their hosts. In new research, videos reveal that before Ixodes ricinus (commonly known as the wood tick) attach themselves to a potential host, they use two flexible mouthparts called chelicerae (upper portion of image) to probe and pierce the skin. Microscopic hooks on those mouthparts help the ticks get a tentative grip. Then, by repeatedly retracting and extending the chelicerae, the bloodsucking arachnids bury a stiff, well-barbed structure called the hypostome (tongue-shaped body part at center of image) in the host’s skin. Once fully embedded in the host, the tick forms a tube by holding the chelicerae and the hypostome together, and the blood meal begins, the researchers report today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. To keep the host from recognizing its presence for the week or so that it takes to become fully engorged, previous studies have shown that the tick’s saliva contains a cocktail of substances that keeps the blood flowing, stifles swelling and itching, and numbs pain. Although the new study doesn’t offer any ideas for how to prevent tick bites, how the mouthparts work together to pierce skin and hold fast may offer ideas for the design of various medical devices, the researchers say.

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Posted in Plants & Animals