Scientists examine how ticks cling to surfaces

June 19, 2017
A male tick Ixodes ricinus attached to a resin replica of human volar skin by seven of eight feet, while the translucent adhesive pad and claw of the right foreleg is folded back upwards and the foot joint contacts the substrate. Credit: Dagmar Voigt

Ticks spend more than 90 percent of their up to three-year-long life starving and clambering around in leaf litter and on vegetation. They walk remarkable distances while periodically exploring distal plant parts in order to prey on their victims. Once they get to humans and animals, the little parasites walk along skin and hairs, searching for suitable feeding sites.

How the bloodsuckers overcome the variety of substrates and manage to cling on to various surfaces is shown by a current study by Dr Dagmar Voigt (Technische Universität Dresden, Germany) and Professor Dr Stanislav Gorb (Kiel University, Germany).

160 years after a first note by Hermann Burmeister about the ticks' feet composition of paired, curved, tapered tarsal claws and between them a pad, the current morphological details and adhesion experiments led to new deductions on the function of ticks' feet. "The fact that not only the pad, but also the transparent claws contain the elastic protein resilin is surprising, because we have never observed resilin in arthropod claws before," said Dagmar Voigt from the Institute for Botany of Technische Universität Dresden. With these sticky pads, ticks are able to attach easily to smooth surfaces like human skin and glass. Depending on the situation and required power, the pads can be folded and unfolded – similar to an accordion. An adhesion-mediated fluid adds to the adhesion of the pad. While walking in litter or on contaminated surfaces, ticks frequently fold back their feet and run on their tarsal-tibial joint.

Males are rather small and access the host body for copulation purposes only. Thus, their feet are smaller and attach less than females. On glass, females generate forces corresponding to more than 500-fold of their own body weight in order to ensure their safety. During blood sucking, the female body weight can increase up to 135 times. Voigt and Gorb also showed that the attachment was worse on skin silicon replicas and on micro-rough resin surfaces. "As to attachment, ticks are almost generalists due to the combination of their soft adhesive pads and tapered claws; but not entirely. Our experiments clearly show, how a future technical , having anti-adhesive properties for ticks, could look like," summarised Stanislav Gorb from the Zoological Institute of Kiel University. Thus, ticks could be prevented from attaching to skin and hair.

Explore further: How the stick insect sticks (and unsticks) itself

More information: Dagmar Voigt et al. Functional morphology of tarsal adhesive pads and attachment ability in ticks(Arachnida, Acari, Ixodidae), The Journal of Experimental Biology (2017). DOI: 10.1242/jeb.152942

Related Stories

How the stick insect sticks (and unsticks) itself

October 7, 2015

New research shows the fluid found on insects' feet does not help them adhere to vertical and inverted surfaces, as previously thought, but may in fact help them to unstick their feet more easily to allow greater control ...

Don't let ticks get under your skin

April 13, 2017

(HealthDay)—Just like people, ticks get more active as the weather gets warmer. So be sure to take steps to protect yourself against picking up an eight-legged hitchhiker when you're outdoors.

Captured in silken netting and sticky hairs

May 16, 2013

The great ecological success of spiders is often substantiated by the evolution of silk and webs. Biologists of the Kiel University and the University of Bern now found an alternative adaptation to hunting prey: hairy adhesive ...

How spiders fix their webs

August 14, 2014

Spider silk is light and delicate, while incredibly resilient and tear-resistant. Understanding the structure and way of construction of these threads is a challenge taken up by a research team of Kiel University. The scientists ...

Oh, what a feeling - dancing on the ceiling!

April 5, 2006

Ever wondered how flies are able to walk on the ceiling without falling off? Scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart (Germany) are investigating this James Bond-style ability of insects to hang upside down from ...

Recommended for you

New discovery challenges long-held evolutionary theory

October 19, 2017

Monash scientists involved in one of the world's longest evolution experiments have debunked an established theory with a study that provides a 'high-resolution' view of the molecular details of adaptation.

Gene editing in the brain gets a major upgrade

October 19, 2017

Genome editing technologies have revolutionized biomedical science, providing a fast and easy way to modify genes. However, the technique allowing scientists to carryout the most precise edits, doesn't work in cells that ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.