Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Clock Keeps Tickin’…Maybe I Will Too

SEM image of a tick's capitulum (head)
Dear Faithful Readers,

I'm sorry about my spotty posting this summer...things have been far busier than I'd ever expected!  This week, however, my excuse isn't that I've been busy, but rather that I've been sick.  I had a head cold that had me loopy for a few days.  Luckily I have an awesome friend who insisted that I take some Sudafed.  One pill pretty much fixed me up after a day of utter misery.  The point is, I missed blogging yet again, so here I am making up for lost time.  This is kind of a short one since I've been a bit under the weather, but I hope you enjoy it anyway!

As is my obsession for finding beauty in odd and often disgusting creatures, I’ve started doing a little work with ticks.  I caught several earlier this summer with no intention of actually taking the time to identify them.  Enter the Field Parasitology course.  Along with gear, the professor (the legendary, Dr. Scott Gardner) brought a stack of books.  Among the books was a mite and tick identification guide.  So, naturally, I felt I needed to pull out my preserved ticks and see what we had here.  I readied my station putting fresh sand in my dish and placing the book to my left and my notepad on the right.  After only a little bit of refreshing myself with tick terminology, I was able to get it keyed out to the genus Dermacentor.  As I read the species descriptions, I narrowed my specimen down to either D. andersoni or D. variabilis.  I was having a hard time differentiating the two, so I decided to wait.  A parasitologist who specializes in ectoparasites (Dr. Don Gettinger) would be coming to the station in a few days, so I just needed to have patience.

Ventral Anatomy of a Tick

Waiting for this expert’s opinion gave me a chance to think more about ticks.  You know, I’ve always hated them…stupid little blood suckers!  However, after forcing myself to look at them under the dissection microscope I started seeing them as less terrifying and more fascinating.  I recalled that way I had examined the tick for evidence of festoons and punctations, and how I had slowly come to realize just how intricate the anatomy of these simple creatures was.  My initial horror had morphed into silent appreciation as I had noted the bifid coxae and the set of 11 festoons.  Here I was again, privy to yet another stunning work in the glorious underground art gallery that Mother Nature had unfurled before my very eyes. 

As my time comes to an end here at the station and I return home to work on Lithuanian mummies and Mexican coprolites, I can say that I am honestly walking away with a new appreciation for yet another group of animals that most people find disgusting.  I’ve given my ticks to Dr. Gettinger and he should have them identified definitively here in a few weeks. I’m really excited about seeing to which species they belong!

Plans for next summer are far from set in stone, but perhaps if I have some time (and if I am out here with the same job I had this summer) I’ll be able to run a few tick drags and collect more of these creatures.  Maybe we could even see if they are carrying some of the bacteria that they have become famous for carrying!  Or maybe I won’t even get to come back here.  Either way, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to broaden my perspectives on the natural world this summer.  As the next few semesters roll on and my time as a PhD student ticks away, we shall see if I ever get the chance to “go ticking” myself!

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