What Does A Tick Look Like? (Tick ID)

What Does a Tick Look Like? What Tick Is This?

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Adult female deer tick (Photo: Wiki Commons).

Identifying Ticks of the Eastern US

For those of you who are in the woods all the time you're probably pretty familiar with what a tick looks like. But there are plenty of people who aren't really familiar with what they look like, and let's face it, when you have one on you, you rarely take the time to check it out up close and personal, you just want it OFF! This post is dedicated to some basic tick anatomy (what they look like) and pictures of the ticks that are most commonly found in the Eastern US.  I've also created a nice quick table that should help you too.

What Does A Tick Look Like?

Ticks come in a variety of sizes, and colors, but they're in a similar size range, from sesame seed size to about 5 mm. Usually the females are larger than the males, so typically the males "eat" less. Immature ticks, often called "seed ticks" can be smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.

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Female black legged or deer tick (Photo: Lennart Tange, Flicker sharing).

Ticks are arthropods (which means "joint-foot") and they are in the arachnid family, along with spiders. Like spiders they have eight legs, with what look like grappling hooks on the ends of their feet for climbing. It's important to note here, the one good thing about ticks is that unlike their spider cousins they can't jump. They only climb, drop, and fall (for those of you that fear jumping spiders, you're welcome).

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Female American dog tick (Photo: Wiki Commons)

With that said, ticks are also like spiders because they have a head and a cephalothorax (seph-a-low-thor-ax, or fused rear and middle), and usually tick's body is quite flat, which makes it hard to get off. In the "hard ticks" (mostly what you find in Eastern North America) their cephalothorax is covered by a hard shield over their soft body, called the idiosoma (id-e-o-soma). In males this covers most of the their hind parts, but in females this only covers part of their hind parts and looks like a saddle or shield which can be used to identify them. The size difference in the shields is due to their feeding styles. The hard shield that covers the male's body doesn't allow him to blow up or engorge like the females do. The female needs to eat more to make more eggs, and so her shorter shield moves out of the way when she feeds.  If you've ever pulled one off your dog that was about the size of a bloated raisin or grape, that was a female (see below).

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Engorged female deer tick (Photo: Wiki Commons).

As you probably know, ticks feed on blood, they are hematophagous (he-ma-toe-fae-age-us), and they have special mouth parts that help them do this. When you look at the pictures below their mouth bits look somewhat like medieval torture devices.

Matt allworth Flicker sharing

Note the two flattish palps on either side of the mouth parts (Photo: Matt Allworth, Flicker Sharing).

Ticks have two palps that surround their "straw" and "saw." The two palps are flattish and act sort of like a woodpecker's tail, they help stabilize the tick as it feeds (especially as it swells up and it's creepy little legs come off your scalp). Just inside the palps are the barbed chelicerae (chee-lis-a-ray).  They have little saws at the top for cutting your skin, this is "saw" part.

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Check out this barbed hypostome (tick-sippy-straw), on a nymph tick (Photo: Dartmoor tick watch).

The final part of their mouth is the hypostome, which sounds really close to the word hypodermic...and it is! Of course it can't just be a smooth and narrow tick-sippy straw, nope, it's covered in backward facing barbs, and it's the reason you don't just pull a tick off quickly. If you just yank a tick off of you you're likely to leave it's medieval looking morning-star-sippy- straw in your skin, and risk infection. You have to apply slow, constant pressure (preferably with tweezers) to make the tick tire and let go.

Now there's lots more technical anatomy stuff around ticks, and for the average tick remover, or field researcher most of what you need to know is what color they are, what size, and where they are found. So....

What Do Ticks Look Like?: Tick Pictures

The three most common ticks here in the Eastern US, and our neck of the Eastern Shore, are deer ticks, dog ticks, and lone star ticks. Each has its own preferred habitat and creatures to feed on, but for the most part they are opportunistic, eating what they can. I'm going to post some good photos for you, and below that is a quick reference chart that can help you figure out what you might have crawling around.

DEER TICK (also called black-legged tick)

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Female deer tick (note black saddle) (Photo: Wiki Commons).

male black legged tick

Male deer tick, note the back is entirely covered (Photo: Wiki Commons).

DOG TICK (also called wood tick)

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Male dog tick (Photo: Dan Thombs, Flicker Sharing).

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Female dog tick, note short back shield (Photo: Patrick Randall, Flicker Sharing).

LONE STAR TICK (also called turkey tick)

Amblyomma_americanum_tick female lonestar wiki

Female lone-star tick (Photo: Wiki Commons).

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Lone Star Ticks (Photo: Wiki Commons).

TICK CHARACTERISTICS QUICK CHART

Characteristic Deer tick Dog Tick Lone Star Tick
Latin Name Ixodes scapularis Dermacentor variabilis Amblyomma americanum
Other common names Black legged tick, bear tick Wood tick Turkey tick
Body Hard bodied Hard bodied Hard bodied
Description Brown abdomen, black legs, and black saddle Reddish brown with grey markings on body; female has white saddle. Brownish black body, female has white spot on back; males have streaks of white around the edges of their abdomen
Size Adult= sesame seed (1-3 mm) 3-5 mm 3-4 mm
Engorged When it feeds it becomes swollen, with a blueish grey abdomen that can bedome quite large. When it feeds it becomes swollen, but looks brownish not grey. Abdomen looks whitish grey, with some grey streaking.
Habitat Woodlands with high humidity Fields, grassy areas, scrubland (little trees) Woodlands and grassy areas
Main Food Source White-footed mice and deer Medium sized hosts, dogs, cats, raccoons, opossums, skunks (feeds on mice when young) White tailed deer, birds, mid sized mammals; doesn't prefer mice
Transmitted Diseases Lyme, babesiosis, anaplasmosis Rocky Mountin spotted fever, tularemia (not good vectors of lyme) Ehrlichia chaffeensis, Ehrlichia ewingii, causing human ehrlichiosis, tularemia, and STARI
How long before disease is transmitted 24-48 hours (slow feeders) Takes 2-14 days for symptoms to occur, feed for 24 hours. Varies
Life cycle 2 years 2 years 2 years
Other Info Frost does not kill deer ticks, can become active as soon as temp is over freezing. Detects prey by smell and body heat Often found on wild turkeys
Can survive up to 2 years without feeding.

There are lots of good websites that have information on ticks, ranging from tick removal to tick borne diseases. I don't have time for all of them here, but you can always swing by the Center for Disease Control for more information too.

 

 
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About Infinite Spider

I am currently the Education Program Coordinator at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. I have also been a curriculum developer for the Smithsonian Science Education Center and a contract curriculum writer for the Discovery Channel. In my spare time I am a blogger here at "The Infinite Spider" (Infinitespider.com), a science and nature blog for naturalists and outdoor educators. I love rowing crew, birding, hiking, kayaking, and being outdoors. My undergraduate degrees are in Environmental Science and Philosophy, and my graduate degree is in Biology. Currently I live in Annapolis, MD.