Deer (Black-Legged) Tick

Ixodes scapularis

Description

The blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), commonly known as the deer tick, is widely known as the sole carrier of the bacteria that causes Lyme disease in humans. This tick is widely distributed in the northeastern and upper Midwestern US, and Mid-Atlantic. Larvae and nymphs feed on small mammals and birds, while adults feed on larger mammals and will bite humans on occasion. They are extremely small in appearance, and may look almost teardrop shaped.

 

Nymph
Adult Male Adult Female Engorged Female

 

Hosts of Blacklegged Ticks

Hosts

This three-host tick tends to have a serial host preference. Larvae feed primarily on small rodents (especially white-footed mice), birds, and reptiles. Nymphs feed on various small rodents, birds, cats, and humans. Adults feed on larger mammals including cats, dogs, and of course, humans.

 

Habitat

Most commonly found in the habitats of white-footed mice and white-tailed deer, deer ticks are predominantly found in the leaf litter and taller grasses and shrubs of deciduous forests (e.g., maple and oak) and surrounding grassy areas.


 
Biology

The life cycle of the deer tick takes approximately two years to complete. Their development is dependent on environment and the availability of hosts. Under favorable conditions, they may be capable of developing in less than one year.

All three of the deer tick’s development stages require blood meals from hosts. Deer ticks attach themselves to and feed on one host during the larval stage, another during the nymphal stage and a third during their adult stage. Deer tick larvae and nymphs both molt after feeding.

After laying eggs, female deer ticks die. However, one female is capable of laying up to 3,000 eggs. Six-legged larvae emerge from these eggs and begin to search for a host. Larvae feed for approximately four days before dropping to the ground to molt into nymphs. Resulting nymphs have eight legs and search again for hosts. They, too, will feed and molt into adults.


 
Disease Transmission

The blacklegged tick is the primary vector of Lyme disease across the northern part of its range. This tick also transmits babesiosis to humans in the northeastern and north-central US, and is known to be one of the tick vectors involved in transmitting human anaplasmosis; formerly known as human granulocytic ehrlichiosis. It is also thought to transmit bovine anaplasmosis to cattle.

It is important to note that the pathogen that causes Lyme disease is maintained by wild rodent and other small mammal reservoirs, and is not transmitted everywhere that the western blacklegged tick lives. In some regions, particularly in the southern US, the tick has very different feeding habits that make it an unlikely vector in the spread of human disease.

Diseases & pathogens that deer ticks are known to carry/transmit:


 
Range Distribution

Blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) is widely distributed in the eastern and central U.S., and is commonly found in at least 35 states. The area of distribution is from Maine south to Florida, west into central Texas, and north to Minnesota.