In 2017, two entomologists (scientists who study insects and arthropods) came across an infestation like one they had never seen before. A farmer in Flemington, New Jersey, contacted the Hunterdon County Health Services about his flock of sheep. When Tadhgh Rainey, one of the two entomologists sent out to investigate, saw the condition of the sheet, they were shocked. The sheep were covered in hundreds, if not thousands, of ticks. Rainey was surprised that the poor creatures were even alive.
The volume of ticks feeding from one animal at a time is rare in North America, and Rainey was unable to identify the type of tick species they were dealing with. Samples were then sent to labs throughout the United States for analysis. Andrea Egizi, an entomologist at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, was able to determine the specie of tick: Haemaphysalis longicornis, a species found across Asia, including Japan, China, and the Korean Peninsula. The 2017 infestation investigated by Rainey was the first sighting of the tick in North America. It has already begun to spread fast throughout the states, with farmers and health departments in Virginia, West Virginia, and Arkansas reporting cases. It is worth learning more about this invasive creature, to keep you, your family, and your pets safe.
Fact 1: It Clones Itself
Like something out of a sci-fi movie, this species of ticks can clone themselves. After a female eats a large meal, she can lay close to 2,000 eggs; each with the exact same DNA. This method of reproduction is called parthenogenesis and is exceptionally rare, occurring in only about 20 of the known 800 species of ticks.
This method of reproduction has alarmed scientists and farmers, as it can create the next generation of ticks much faster than with the traditional mating process. While most American ticks, such as the deer tick, need about two years to reproduce, the longhorned tick can do so in as little as six months.
Fact 2: They Eat Anything
Many species of ticks only focus on one or two types of hosts. For example, the moose tick only feeds on moose. Others only focus on humans. This keeps populations down and reduces the risk of spreading diseases. The longhorned tick is not as picky, and is eager to feed on just about anything, animal, bird, or human. This means that you need to be on the lookout at all times, even in areas where you may once have felt relatively safe from tick bites.
Fact 3: They Carry Blood-Borne Human Diseases
Thankfully, there have been no reported human bites in North America yet. However, the longhorned tick is a huge public health threat in its native countries. It is capable of carrying numerous types of viruses and bacteria. A recent spread of SFTS (severe fever with thrombocytopenia) throughout China, Japan, and Korea has been linked back to the longhorned tick. This disease can cause internal bleeding and has a five percent fatality rate.
While this disease has yet to be found in any of the ticks identified in North America, there is a huge concern that the ticks could adapt, carrying the same diseases American ones do, including Lyme disease. Other diseases researchers are concerned about seeing a rise in are ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and Powassan virus.
Fact 4: An Infestation Could Be Devastating to Livestock
The biggest risk posed by the longhorned tick is to cows and sheet. It has already started to spread theileriosis, a deadly disease that strikes cattle. In some cases, horde of ticks can literally suck an animal dry, draining it of all its blood.
It is important to keep a close eye on all farm animals, constantly checking for signs of ticks. Farmers in areas with known infestations should consider giving their animals anti-tick medication as a precautionary measure. Using sprays on you and your family before venturing out into areas that are frequented by ticks can also reduce the risk of you bringing them back with you to when you return home.
Fact 5: Researchers Don’t Know Much Else
Scientists still have no idea how the tick made it to the United States in the first place, nor do they know how it has managed to spread so far from its first signing in New Jersey in such a short timeframe. Some speculate that the ticks managed to spread by feeding on birds or horses.
There is also recent doubt as to how long the ticks have been in the United States. After the identification of the longhorned tick by Egizi, a graduate student at Rutgers decided to test a sample found nearby in 2013. This sample was identified as a rabbit tick, but the graduate student had doubts. Sure enough, testing revealed that it was a longhorned tick, pointing to their being here for at least four years.
Considering the destructive nature of the tick, and the relative uncertainty about how it spreads, it is important that everyone stay tick-safe when outside. Avoid areas that are heavily populated with tick, especially if you are in one of the infected areas. You should also take care to examine your pets and animals often for signs of ticks and to treat tick bites fast.
Alexandra grew up dreaming of being a great science explorer. She always wanted to travel the world and explore some of the greatest science mysteries of the times. After high school, she studied chemistry in college and spent most of her summers working on research projects alongside her professors. It was there that Alexandra got clarity about what she wanted to do in the future. She now works full time in science research at a teaching university and is planning to go to medical school in a few years. She likes to stay up-to-date with the latest discoveries in science and share her love for science through her writing.