I, Ixodes, the Mighty Tick

ixodes_cape_cover_06-2I am Ixodes, the Mighty Tick. My full name is Ixodes Scapularis. I’m more commonly known as the deer tick. You may have met me during your outdoor adventures. I’m the little brown thing stuck on your leg that you can’t pull off. That bug you’ve heard so many bad stories about.

This is my true life story.

Life as a Baby

came_out_of_egg_03I started life as an egg. Inside my egg was enough food to last a couple of months. After that I had to push my way out and hustle for my own grub. Tiny? I was no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. I had six legs, not that you could see them without a magnifying glass.

When I first got out, I didn’t have a clue what to do next. But I had that wonderful thing called instinct. I had the sense to crawl up on a leaf near the ground and wait for dinner to come to my door.

Then, what do you know? A fat mouse appeared. I could smell it, hear it, and even feel its body heat. Suddenly, it all made sense. What I needed for dinner was blood from that mouse.

An Eating Machine

at_center_of_my_beautiful_02I scrambled onto the mouse’s fur and looked for a place to eat. I knew then that I was an eating machine! For a mouth, I had a long, prickly sticker with a tube inside. I sank the tube into the mouse’s skin. When it was in, I spread my body out and got ready to stuff myself.

You may ask, how did I get by with this nasty sticking and biting? Why didn’t the mouse feel anything? My saliva has a chemical that numbs the skin. Another chemical acts like glue to keep my body fastened in place so I won’t be scratched off.

All I had to do was sit there and suck through my tube like a kid with a straw in a milk shake. When I was full, I squirted out another chemical to dissolve the glue.


After I was done with dinner, I was almost 200 times bigger than when I started. A really fat dude. Because my shell was practically bursting, I had to get rid of it and grow a new one. That’s called molting. When the shell had fallen away, my soft underbelly was completely exposed to any bird that fancied a snack. It was a scary time. It took a month for the new shell to grow on. In the bargain, I got two extra legs, making eight in all.

At this point, I was ready to eat again.

The Bad News

Some mice—like the one I bit—carry viruses in their blood that cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease. If the mouse I bit was infected, it meant that I was, too. And if I was infected, any human I dined on would get the disease.

lymes_disease_03People who get Lyme disease are in for a bad trip. They run a fever, their body aches, and they’re tired all the time. A red rash starts around the tick bite. In a few days a red ring forms around a clear circle, like a bull’s eye. If the disease is diagnosed quickly and the doctor starts an antibiotic, the person will probably recover. If not, they’ll have all kinds of medical problems and may never get well.

rocky_mountain_fever_01Rocky Mountain spotted fever is worse. It starts out with a rash. A week or two after the bite, people get so sick that they end up in the hospital. They can’t breathe right, hear, or talk clearly. Unless given antibiotics quickly, three of four infected humans die.

Tips for Humans

You’re safe if you find a tick on your skin before it starts feeding. It takes ticks a while to find a warm safe spot. The humans who know what they’re doing grasp a tick near the head with tweezers and pull straight out. They don’t twist the tick or leave a chopped off head in the skin, where it can still cause an infection.


Smart people put the dead tick in a jar for a couple of weeks until they’re sure they’re not getting sick. If they find a rash or feel funny, they go to a doctor and take the tick body in a jar for lab testing.

Some advice

  • Spray your clothes with permethrin before going out in the woods. It lasts for a month, even after laundering.
  • Spray your skin with Deet.
  • Stay on trails instead of hiking through the undergrowth.
  • If you take a dog, put a flea collar on it or be sure it’s current on tick prevention medicine.
  • Do a full-body check of your skin after you’ve been in the woods.
  • If you find a tick remove it with a pair of tweezers, pulling straight out. Be sure to get the head along with the body.
  • Shower when you get in, never giving ticks a chance to hunt for a good feeding place.
  • Wash your clothes.

Happy trails!

Tanja Askani–Creator of the New Bambi and Thumper

Return of Bambi and Thumper

Tanja Askani, a Czech author, photographer, and animal scientist living in Germany, has disseminated a series of Bambi-Thumper photos that have gone viral on the internet.  People find them adorable. When I received the series in my e-mail, I thought they looked too good to be true. They were.

After downloading the photos and examining them in zoom view, I found clear evidence that every photo had been altered substantially. We’re not talking about subtle adjustments in contrast or lighting. The “reality” of animal tenderness and bonding shown in the photos is the result of digital artifice.

Photoshop Magic

Askani’s creative combinations of two more photos into one made me wonder. Were the deer and rabbit ever actually nose to nose? My hunch is that Askani got some good shots but could not resist tinkering with them. I think she ended up creating the photos she wished she had taken, not the ones she actually took.  Being a Photoshop expert,  I know the temptation to make a good image better.  But pasting one image on top of another and passing it off as a miracle of interspecies bonding is fraud.

Arrows in the photos point to some of  the areas of Photoshop fakery. The paste-ins, blending and use of line tools and brushes weren’t even done skillfully. Methinks Ms. Askani has got herself in a bind with her now-famous Bambi-Thumper photographs. How can she acknowledge her deception (which will surely be exposed) and maintain any kind of reputation as an animal photographer?  Or animal scientist, for that matter.

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South American Bush Dog–Smallest of the Wild Dogs

The smallest of the wild dogs is the South American bush dog, weighing in at less than 15 pounds.  No bigger than a terrier, it has a solid little body and short legs. The bush dog is built low to the ground so it can dart through the underbrush of the rainforest without being seen.

The problem with their small stature is that bush dogs can’t even see each other in tall grass and thick bushes. They make up for this with a repertoire of grunts, squeaks, whines and growls that carry over long distances at ground level. They “talk” almost constantly, telling each other where they are and what they’re doing. Bush dogs also mark their paths of travel with frequent urine marking.

Bush dogs have soft, reddish brown fur.  With their short ears, round heads and blunt noses, they look more like weasels than dogs. When a bush dog jumps into the water, it looks like an otter, paddling with its webbed feet.  Bush dogs dive underwater like experts and swim with their eyes open to catch fish, turtles, and other water animals. Because of this ability, they usually live near rivers. To watch a video of bush dogs catching a turtle  click here.

Holes vacated by armadillos and other burrowing animals often become the homes of bush dogs. Others move into hollow logs. If they can’t find anything ready-made, bush dogs dig their own dens (photo).

Hunting together during the day, a pack of bush dogs fans out over the forest floor. Occasionally they hunt alone, listening and sniffing their way along. As a pack, they work together so intelligently that they can bring down prey as large as peccaries and tapirs—some weighing over 500 pounds.

When a bush dog pair has pups, other adults in the pack stop mating.  This allows the group to focus on one litter at a time. For several weeks, the babies stay hidden in their den.  The extended family makes sure no predators get close. When the pups finally emerge, pack members share the job of protecting and feeding them.  Their aunts and uncles carry them in their mouths just like their parents do.

As the pups outgrow nursing, pack members bring them food–chewing it first and then transferring it to the babies’ mouths.  The pups paw at the muzzles of the adults to them know they’re hungry.

Among the friendliest of the wild dogs, bush dogs greet each other joyfully after a separation, wagging their stubby tails. They sleep close to each other (click here), travel in an orderly way (single file), and rarely fight over anything. The packs have no clear ladder of dominance the way other wild dogs do. They treat each other as equals. It’s hard to say who’s running things in a bush dog pack.

Little is known about these secretive animals because they stay so well hidden in the rainforests of South America, mainly in Brazil. Much of our knowledge of their behavior comes from zoos helping to preserve the species in captivity. Zoo staff find them friendly and sociable, much like pet dogs. As of 2010, the American public could see bush dogs in only five city zoos—Oklahoma City, Palm Beach, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Little Rock.

The Dingo Dog–Wild Dog of Australia

Australians are proud of their dingo dogs. The species is unique to their homeland and is rarely, if ever, found elsewhere.

Normally, dingoes live in the Outback–a vast arid region covering most of inland Australia.  They avoid human settlements.  In times of drought, however, the dogs are forced to migrate in search of water and food, taking them into areas populated by humans. Since sheep and cattle ranches are so common in Australia, many dingoes end up on ranch land.  This has given them a taste for livestock, especially sheep.  Sheep are easy marks because they seldom run away. Instead, they huddle in groups, undefended.

Understandably, most sheep ranchers have zero tolerance for dingo dogs. Because the dogs also feed on dead livestock killed by other predators, they’re sometimes blamed for deaths they didn’t cause.  When dingoes are hungry enough to wander into towns and villages, they scavenge from garbage cans and even kill pets—a practice that earns them no friends, either.

On the other hand, some ranchers have befriended dingoes, using them as working dogs. Owners say they’re as tame as domestic dogs when raised by humans.  Dingoes are smart and friendly, though they can get touchy during breeding season. Sheep ranchers who use them for herding report that their dingoes never attack sheep. Dingoes take their jobs seriously and obey commands well. Some families keep dingoes in their homes and find them to be good pets. (The practice is illegal in some parts of Australia.)

The person lucky enough to spot a dingo in the wild usually sees the dog traveling alone. While they belong to small family groups, the members seldom meet unless it’s mating season. Then they spend most of their time together breeding and raising pups.

Dingo packs have clear territories and avoid the ranges of other dingoes.  Each pack is fierce about protecting its own range. An unfamiliar dingo who wanders into their territory is likely to be attacked and killed. This seldom happens, though, because unrelated groups are careful to avoid each other. Dingoes rarely fight with members of their own pack.

Dingoes are excellent hunters, working out their tactics ahead of time. At least two lead dogs are responsible for locating a target—a kangaroo, wallaby or smaller animal.  They chase their prey to a place where other pack members are waiting in ambush. With their agility and skill, they know how to steer a prey animal just where they want it.  Those lying in wait are good at cornering the animal by dodging this way and that.

Dingoes “talk” to each other by howling, whining, and sometimes growling.  (To watch a dingo howl click this link. They growl for the same reasons pet dogs to—as a warning. Unlike other dog species, they bark very little—and then only to indicate aggressive intent. Sometimes the bark is followed by a long howl that rises and falls. They also howl to show affection when they greet each other.

The government of Australia classified dingoes as an endangered species in 2004—a step toward protecting them as a form of wildlife found only in Australia. Some wildlife experts say that it’s impossible to preserve the species in purebred form because dingoes have already interbred too widely with pet dogs.  Interbreeding started as far back as the 1800s when immigrant families brought their dogs from Europe. Over the years, many of their pets escaped or were let go.  A large number joined dingo packs. As the dogs mated and raised litters, the numbers of dingo hybrids multiplied.

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The Painted Dog–Wild Dog of Africa

The wild dog of Africa is best known as the Painted Dog. You can see why.  With their bright spots and big round ears, these dogs can’t be missed as they travel in packs through the savannah. Another term for them is the Cape Hunting Dog. Their stride and confidence say, “Don’t mess with us.”  For a video (without bloodshed), click here (Wild Dog Pack).

Painted Dogs are fierce enemies, but within the pack they are gentle as lambs. They like to nuzzle and brush against each other. When one gets sick, the rest nurse it back to health. They cooperate in raising litters of pups. After a successful hunt, Painted Dogs save some meat to carry home to the puppies, adults who stayed behind babysitting, and sick or injured pack members.

Life in the wild is dangerous so they take good care of each other. They don’t fight over females.  When two of them have their eyes on the same morsel of food, the competition takes a strange form.  They try to outdo each other in their begging performance.  Each puts on such a pitiful display of hunger that eventually one gives in and walks away.

The intelligence of Painted Dogs and their ability to carry out complicated hunting strategies pays off.  At least eighty percent of their hunts end in a kill—a much higher rate than that of most African predators.  Lions are lucky to bring down prey thirty percent of the time.  In fact, they often steal carcasses from Painted Dogs.

Painted Dog packs are large and need space.  With Africans taking over more land for ranching, some dogs have developed a taste for farm animals—a habit that has backfired on them. Farmers now hunt and kill Painted Dogs. The dogs also pick up diseases from farm dogs. An outbreak of rabies, distemper or parvo can threaten the lives of an entire pack.

The African Painted Dogs are among the most intelligent dogs in the world. They don’t rely on instinct alone to tell them what to do. They depend on knowledge that has been passed from generation to generation.  This includes information about hunting strategies, the best places to find water and food, and the dangers that surround them.

The wild dogs of Africa are an endangered species.  Once there were over half a million. Now there are fewer than 5000.  Painted Dogs can still be found in the countries shown on the map. Because they need such large ranges, they are hard to raise in captivity.

Raccoon Dogs–Wild Dogs of Asia

Doesn’t this look like a raccoon?

The animal in the photo isn’t even related to a raccoon.  It’s called–you guessed it–a raccoon dog.  It belongs to a species discovered in the cold regions of Asia more than two hundred years ago.

In the 1800s, Chinese trappers realized the economic potential of raccoon dogs. Their lush winter fur made great overcoats.  Traders began to hunt and trap the dogs, then export their fur. Soon, Russian entrepreneurs decided to obtain some raccoon dogs from Asia and breed them for the same purpose. Before long, other eastern European countries followed suit.

These wild dogs are about the same size as terriers but their weight fluctuates throughout the year.  In the spring, they’re at their lightest.  In summer, they start fattening up in preparation for winter—just as bears do.  Those still living in the wild spend the coldest months of the year dozing in dens and living off stored fat. Their fur thickens to help them conserve body heat.

Raccoon dogs are the only dogs that hibernate.  They don’t sleep as deeply as bears, but they slumber off and on when the snow is deep or the weather is particularly harsh.  As the skies clear and temperatures warm up, they leave their dens to hunt for food.

These little dogs are easy-going and seldom fight.  When a predator frightens them, they scream or play dead. Occasionally, male raccoon dogs courting the same female get into skirmishes, but they rarely do much damage.

They eat almost anything.  The protein in their diet comes from insects, rodents, frogs, birds, and even dead animals.  Because they swim well, fish are also on the menu.  Raccoon dogs living near water look for water bird eggs and chicks. The dogs like plant foods, too–fruit, pumpkins, tomatoes, nuts, and grain.  In Japan they’ve been seen climbing trees with their curved claws and picking fruit.  They often raid gardens, vineyards, and grain fields. Click on this link to watch a raccoon dog feeding in the wild. (free dinner).

Although raccoon dogs aren’t allowed in the U.S., many Europeans keep them as pets. They find the dogs easy to live with and safe with children. However, they can’t be trusted around gerbils or other small animals.  Feeding them is cheap as they eat almost anything.

When householders are at work, the dogs seldom get into mischief around the house, because they sleep most of the day. However, families who allow the dogs outside must take precautions to make their yards escape-proof. Raccoon dogs are expert diggers and make holes under fences.

The only thing owners complain of is how much raccoon dogs shed every spring.  As the weather warms up, the dogs get rid of their thick winter fur—which collects in large tufts around the house.

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The Cockroach That Ran off with a Stick of Spaghetti

A friend recently told me that her aunt saw a cockroach run off with a stick of dry spaghetti.  I asked whether the aunt was in the habit of telling tall tales. My friend said no.

Now I wonder whether cockroaches can really do this. If I knew the aunt was a fibber, I would shrug it off.   But since I’m not sure, I have to go around wondering if a cockroach can really run around with a stick of spaghetti in its mouth.

The other day, I heard an acquaintance telling friends about her experience rescuing a baby squirrel from her yard.  After getting the advice of a wildlife center, she fed it from a dropper. She kept the squirrel for quite awhile, she said.

I asked, “But you couldn’t release it into the wild again, right?” No, she said, she got the wildlife center to take it.  However, while she had the squirrel, she discovered that it liked being stroked under one front leg—it’s “sweet spot”, she called it.  The other squirrels hanging around her house saw this. Since they were pretty tame, she tried it on them.  What do you know? They liked it, too.  So much that they stood in line waiting their turn for their “sweet spot” to be stroked.

Afterward, I thought, “Hold on here!” I enjoy true stories about animals’ unusual abilities.  But squirrels standing in line? I’ve had a lot of contact with squirrels over the years, and I can’t imagine them standing in line for anything. Squirrels push, shove and bully each other.

Why am I so irritated by this whopper?  After all, the woman didn’t con me out of money or do any real damage.  I guess I’m still smarting from being such a sucker.

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Life of a Tick

The life of Mr. Tick (or Ms. Tick) starts as a single egg bunched up with thousands of others.  Once the mother has accomplished the Herculean task of giving birth, she dies.

Mr. Tick hatches as a tiny larva with six legs.  This early in life, he can go without food for months, but eventually he needs a big meal of warm blood or he will die.

Let’s say a rabbit comes along just in time, and the tick fills his belly with life-giving blood. If the rabbit has Lyme disease, this is of no concern to the tick. He is unaffected. He goes merrily on his way searching for more food.  For a passing hiker on whom the tick lands, it’s another story. The hiker is likely to pick up the virus and get sick.

With all this eating and growing, the tick needs to molt–that is, to shed the shell protecting his soft underbody.  His shell can’t expand and so it must be ditched.

Molting is a long process, lasting about a month—a dangerous time for Mr. Tick. Any passing beetle or spider can devour his soft, delicious body. If the tick escapes being eaten, he grows two more legs.  Now the tick is called a nymph even though the sex is still unclear.  (If you’re a girl, Mr. Tick, please excuse our form of address.)

Time for another big meal. Perching on a leaf or grass stem near the ground, the tick waits for a  rabbit, deer, or human to jump on. That done, he  seeks a safe crevice and digs in for dinner.  When he’s fat and full, he drops off to molt for the last time.

Now Mr. Tick (if it’s a he) is ready for romance.  He hangs out at eating establishments–that is, on warm-blooded animals–looking for love.  Mating takes place on a animal where the male and female are feeding.  After that, the old story repeats itself.  The female lays several thousand eggs and dies.  If the male is lucky, he lives to be an old man of three.

Miracle of design

The mouth of a tick is a design masterpiece.  In the center is a tube (hypostome) that comes to a point and pierces an animal’s skin. Prongs hold it in place. The tick squirts his personal glue on your skin so you can’t scratch or pull him off. The glue sits under the tick’s two palps–mouth parts that spread out on your skin.  When dinner is over, the glue conveniently dissolves.

How does the tick get by with all this biting and poking?  Easy.  His victims don’t feel a thing.  A chemical in the tick’s saliva numbs the skin and keeps the bite from getting red and itchy.  Otherwise, the jig would be up.

That’s not all.  Another chemical prevents normal blood clotting. A blood clot would be bad news for a tick, as it would plug his feeding tube.

The hunting game

Ticks are clever hunters. After they find a look-out spot, they push their front legs forward so they’ll brush against passing animals. Thousands of nerve endings in the tick’s legs sense approaching movement and warmth.  Mr. Tick can even smell exhaled carbon dioxide.

Hidden ticks can feed for days or even weeks on a single animal if they aren’t caught—stuffing themselves until they swell to many times their normal size.

Terror of the underbrush

Ticks carry more diseases than almost any other blood-sucking insect in the world. Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever are the most common.

Lyme disease makes you hot and feverish.  You get frequent headaches and feel tired and depressed.  You may see a skin rash where you were bitten.  It’s red at the center surrounded by a ring of normal skin, with a big pink circle around that.

If you’re diagnosed and treated soon enough, recovery is rapid.  If not, soon your joints hurt, your heart behaves strangely, and your nervous system plays tricks on you

If a tick gives you Rocky Mountain spotted fever, you’ll get a different kind of rash– many small red spots, even on the hands. You’re likely to end up in the hospital because of breathing problems, hearing loss, and trouble speaking. You may not be able to walk properly. Antibiotics are the only cure, and they must be started promptly.

Avoiding tick bites

•       Spray your clothes with permethrin before hiking.  It kills ticks that contact the fabric.  Don’t spray it on your skin. Skin chemicals quickly break permethrin down so it doesn’t work.
•       Spray your skin with an insect repellent containing DEET.
•       If your dog hikes with you, make sure his or her flea-tick preventive is current.
•       While you’re outdoors, check your skin for ticks every few hours. If you remove them within an hour or two after they find you, infection isn’t likely.
•       If a tick is buried in your skin, pull it off and count the legs.  A six-legged tick (larva) is usually too young to carry disease.
•       Take every tick with eight legs seriously, no matter how small.  Size has nothing to do with danger.
•       Shower right after hiking to wash off ticks that haven’t latched on yet.  Ticks often spend hours looking for a soft, warm spot.
•      Put your clothes in a drier on high for 15 minutes when you get home.  That kills ticks hiding in the folds.

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The Maned Wolf– Wild Dog of South America

The maned wolf of South America is not a wolf at all, but a wild dog–but  it looks like a cross between a wolf and a fox.  Maned wolves live in open grasslands, on the edges of forests or in the marshlands of Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina.

Taller than any other wild dogs, maned wolves stand on long legs that allow them to spot prey over expanses of tall grass. Their height also helps them see approaching danger. Like many wild animals with manes, the dogs can make their fur can stand on end, making them look bigger and more threatening to enemies.

These wild dogs eat small and medium-sized animals, including rodents, rabbits, birds and fish. They turn their large ears this way and that to listen for movements in the grass, then tap the ground with their front feet to flush the prey out. While maned wolves enjoy meat just like other dogs, plants and fruits make up about half their diet. They use their sharp incisor teeth to tear meat and crush plants with their broad, flat molars.

The dogs serve as seed carriers for many of the plants they eat—starting a cycle when they defecate on ant nests.  The ants use the dung to fertilize their fungus gardens—later discarding the seeds onto piles just outside the nest. This rich environment promotes germination of the seeds. And so the plants grow to feed the wild dogs once again.

Unlike other wild dogs, maned wolves do not form packs.  They hunt alone, usually in the early evening.  A male and female may share territory but they are seldom together except to mate. Their range is criss-crossed by paths they have made when patrolling at night.  Occasionally small groups of maned wolves do meet at a plentiful food source.

Unfortunately, the maned wolf has earned many enemies because of its nocturnal activities as a chicken thief. Some farmers believe that these dogs also kill cattle and sheep, but this is now known to be untrue.

The Brazilian government has recently classified the maned wolf as an endangered species and has given it legal protection. The dogs suffer from the same loss of habitat that other wild species do.  In addition, some are struck by cars or attacked by domestic dogs.

The maned wolf is a shy animal and poses very little threat to humans.  A number of zoos have bred these dogs successfully, so they are well represented in captivity. Click here to see pups born and raised at the Houston Zoo–Pups at play.

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Paynes Prairie State Park

Payne’s Prairie State Park lies along the shores of Lake Wauberg in north central Florida, 10 miles south of Gainesville. The lake is populated by alligators, herons, egrets, eagles, and other wildlife.

Deer, bison and wild horses roam 22,000 acres of park around the lake.

When I began kayaking on Lake Wauberg twenty years ago, alligators 10 to 12 feet long or were common.  From a distance, those in the water looked like big floating logs. As the kayak approached, they sank slowly beneath the surface—their eyes disappearing last.

Those sunning themselves on the banks or draped on tree limbs fallen over the water were harder to spot as they were as motionless as statues, not even blinking. They blended in with the surroundings.

When the kayak drew close, they suddenly came to life and splashed into the water. Now these large adults are gone, leaving only small, shy gators. According to park rangers, the adults were relocated because they frightened swimmers and boaters.

Flocks of black vultures (American vultures) sit on the highest branches of dead trees around the lake—often hundreds of them. In the early mornings, these silent birds perch on limbs with their wings outspread to let the dew evaporate. Others soar overhead in circles, catching wind currents and staying aloft with no apparent effort.

Great white egrets and herons wade onshore, walking slowly through the water on stilt-like legs.  They’re looking for small fish to spear with their long pointed beaks.  As the kayak approaches, they squawk loudly—an unseemly sound for such lovely birds. They spread their enormous wings and lift off to find more privacy further down the shore. Click the link to see an  egret lifting off.

The Anhingas, also called snake birds, gather in large groups at the end of the lake where it’s most quiet. When they’re paddling on the water, only their curved necks and heads are visible. Occasionally they dive below the surface to hide or look for food, flashing their tail feathers skyward as the last thing to be seen of them. Where their heads will bob up again no one knows.

A lone eagle may be stationed on a treetop at the water’s edge. With their excellent vision, eagles can spot fish a considerable distance from shore. As the eagle swoops down to the water, ruffly legs and talons are extended downward to take deadly purchase on the fish they’ve spotted. Then, off they fly with several pounds of thrashing fish in their grip. Click here to see an eagle fishing (Eagle Fishing).

On rare occasions, the kayaker can see a male and female eagle performing an aerial ballet of courtship, diving and soaring around each other. They mate for life.

For a brief kayak tour of Lake Wauberg with Trudy (my dog), go to Kayaking with Trudy.

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