What Good Are Ticks?

3 reasons you should tolerate ticks

Macro of a tick

Santiago Urquijo / Getty Images

There may be no “bug” creepier than a tick. These blood-sucking parasites can crawl up your body, embed their mouthparts in your skin, and then casually drink their fill of your blood until their bodies expand like tiny water balloons. Ticks carry and transmit a variety of diseases to people and pets, from Lyme disease to anaplasmosis. Feeding ticks can paralyze livestock, and large tick infestations can kill the host animal.

So as you carefully pluck a tick from your skin, you may undoubtedly wonder what purpose they serve. 

Ancient Arthropods

Though it might be hard to see from the perspective as a blood host, ticks do serve an important role in the ecological system. Every organism serves a purpose, and the lowly tick is no exception.

Parasitic ticks first appeared in the fossil record during the Cretaceous period, and it’s believed they were the bane of dinosaurs millions of years before they bothered humans. The oldest known fossil tick was discovered in a piece of amber recovered from a vacant lot in Sayreville, N.J. Carlos Jerseyi, as the specimen was named, is 90 million years old and may have come to North America by hitching a ride with a seabird that migrated from South America. Despised though they might be, ticks are clearly doing something right to have survived this long.

Reasons to Tolerate Ticks

Ticks are food for other animals. Reptiles, amphibians, and birds all consume a large number of ticks. The arachnids are an essential food source for animals that forage for sustenance in the places where ticks live—which is almost everywhere. In areas that are thick with ticks, people will sometimes deploy guinea hens as a roaming tick-control team. And the neighborhood opossums that wander through your yard after dark are doing their part, too. Opossums eat a remarkable number of ticks.

Ticks host a variety of other organisms, namely microparasites. Ticks carry viruses, bacteria, protozoa, and other microscopic life wherever they go. While you may prefer that they didn’t, since many of these stowaways are the very source of human tick-borne illnesses, in the grand, ecological scheme of things, these microorganisms are part of the diversity of life on Earth.

Control Populations

By virtue of their blood-draining, disease-causing ways, ticks help control the populations of their larger hosts. People understand concepts like carrying capacity and population control when they consider predator-prey relationships, but they are less sympathetic to the tiny parasites that serve the same purpose.

Just as the owl keeps the population of mice and shrews in check, ticks play a role in maintaining a balance within the ecosystem. Regardless of whether the giraffe is taken down by a lion or blood-draining feast of 50,000 ticks—and that is the record for the number of ticks on a single, small ​giraffe—t’s still one less giraffe in the herd.

Ticks are just doing what they’ve been doing for tens of millions of years. If you don’t want them feeding on you, be sure to take precautions to avoid tick bites.

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