I’m Feeling Really ‘Ticked On’

I love that every living thing on our planet is here for a reason. From the massive to the microscopic, everything has evolved into their own fabulous little niches where they’ve adapted to thrive and pass on those genes of theirs. Even if we might think those genes and their carriers are somewhat annoying…

Some people might argue that there’s no place for the irritating little mosquito buzzing around our ears. But there is! Without mosquitos, the animals that eat them and their larvae would suffer, as would the things that eat the things that eat them, and the things that eat those. And it’s not the nicest thing to think about, but mosquitos and the diseases they transmit play a huge role in ‘thinning out’ weak populations of animals, preventing over crowding and making sure that only the traits of the very fittest animals get to carry over to the next generation. They’re an integral part of the ‘web of life’ and the exact same thing can be said of, well, everything.


isn’t she pretty?

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a walking safari and this little sweetheart caught my attention. She’s a bont tick, and isn’t she darling? I nearly couldn’t pull myself away. I was mesmerized, and quite rightly so. For her to make it to that bush where I photographed her, she’s had a heck of a life.

Let’s start from the very beginning where she would have been one of thousands of siblings from the same mom. She would have been born a rather tiny little nymph and would have had to wait patiently somewhere near the ground for her first host animal to come along. She was very small and there’s a good chance her first host was too. Maybe she attached herself to something like a hare or a rat. I’ve even seen ticks latched onto insects. After a tasty blood meal on that first animal, she would have fallen off and waiting for the next, bigger animal to pass by. After hitching a ride and stealing plenty of blood from that one, she would have fallen off again and moulted into an adult on the ground. And here’s where I found her; an adult tick waiting for a nice big host to walk by. Big like a buffalo. She’d attach herself to that buffalo, eat some more blood, find a hot boyfriend somewhere on that buffalo and then fall off to lay a few thousand eggs. Lifecycle complete. I wished her well. But I didn’t want her on me.

I think that ticks are still kind of misunderstood. They’re actually eight legged arachnids like spiders and scorpions. Their abdomens tend to be soft, so they can expand when they’re full of our blood. Or a buffalo’s blood. Or a tortoise’s blood. Or a lion’s blood. They’re not too picky. Any blood will do. And A LOT of ticks will attach themselves to one animal. Something really big like a giraffe or a buffalo might have as many as 20,000 ticks; more if it’s not feeling very well. Even the little guys like impalas are likely to have a good few thousand ticks crammed into every crevice. You’ll have seen oxpecker birds picking at ticks on animals, and they do help somewhat, but they’re just no match for such numbers.

The best thing about ticks is the fact that their mouthparts are called a ‘gnathosoma.‘ How can you even begin to dislike a creature that has something called a gnathosoma? You can’t. Although this week, I certainly tried.

I’ve spent nearly the last two weeks with tick bite fever. Tick bite fever is a nasty bacterial infection that happens when you’re bitten by an infected tick. And it sucks. Because of where my bite was, the infection went straight to the glands at the top of my right leg and rendered me completely useless. I usually go about my day at the pace of an ADHD-afflicted honey bee, but with my tick bite, I was forced to slow. Right. Down. In some ways, it was a real blessing to experience life at a gentler pace.

I could have lived with my tick bite, if walking slow with an achy leg was all that happened. But by about day four, the fever started to kick in. The worst headaches I’ve ever had were accompanied by whimpers of ‘I hate everything’ over and over again any time I was forced to crawl or limp anywhere. It’s the sickest I’ve been in a long time. Around this time, the middle of my tick bite started to go black. Ew.

Please don’t let your safari or your trip to Africa get screwed up by tick bite fever. Take precautions if you know you’ll be walking. Tick bite fever can be prevented by using a good bug repellent when you’re out in the bush, but I haven’t seen a bug repellent that actually works on sale in South Africa since 2008, so it’s best to bring your own. The big symptoms show up 5-7 days after being bitten and most people don’t know they have it until then. The real tell-tale symptom is the black mark in the middle of the bite. If you’ve got that, you’ve probably got tick bite fever. Luckily, it’s easily treated with antibiotics (although I maintain mine did nothing) and can even be left alone to run its course. It should be over in less than two weeks. I’m going to hold it to that, because I still feel terrible!

Despite all this, I think I love ticks even more. This little episode has given me a deeper appreciation of their resilience, their diversity, their beauty and above all, their gnathosomas.  Love.

this is my tick bite. i know. pretty gross…

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