Notes on Ticks

If you’re a naturalist on the Eastern Shore, encountering ticks is inevitable. Since moving here from a more urban area, I’ve learned the importance of daily tick checks, especially in warm weather. Adkins Arboretum, like any healthy, naturalized habitat, has its fair share of these pesky arachnids. Dog ticks, black-legged ticks, and Texas Lone Star ticks thrive in thickets, leaf litter, and grassy areas. Each of these species can transmit diseases. 

Luckily, there are ways to enjoy nature and avoid bringing ticks home with you. Repellents, both chemical and natural, can be helpful. Staying on the path, keeping canine friends at your side, wearing closed-toed shoes, and tucking your pants into your socks are also good defensive measures. Above all, check…and check again. 

“Why ticks?” many of us wonder. “What good are they?” As it turns out, ticks have many environmental benefits. According to Land Steward Kathy Thornton, ticks “benefit the moist, dark ecosystems in which they live by serving as a food source for many reptiles, birds, and amphibians. They also help control wild animal populations. Scientists even use them as an indicator of an ecosystem’s overall health and stability.” 

Healthy ecosystems have built-in control mechanisms to keep the spread of pathogens in check. Studies show that high animal diversity is key to limiting tick-borne disease. The presence of red foxes has a negative correlation with the incidence of Lyme disease, most likely because foxes feed on white-footed mice, which are carriers of Lyme bacterium. Opossums can eat up to 4,000 ticks a week, and guineafowl, though not native, likewise consume massive quantities of ticks. 

Ticks have been on Earth since the Cretaceous period, 145-66 million years ago. Given their long history, it’s unlikely they’ll be going away anytime soon. We might not like them, but we can learn to accept them. Because the alternative–not venturing into nature at all–poses an even greater risk to our physical and mental health.

by Jenny Houghton
Assistant Director

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