Deer Ticks: Eight-legged Menace

The Great Outdoors | June 12, 2020

By Jackie Scharfenberg, Forest Naturalist, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Let’s review the questing steps:

  • STEP ONE: Lock back two pairs of legs on a long grass blade or skinny twig.
  • STEP TWO: Extend front two pair of legs.
  • STEP THREE: Wait for a host to amble along this grass-line wooded path.
  • STEP FOUR: Detect the order of a mouse’s body and breath; sense its heat; feel the vibrations of its footsteps.
  • STEP FIVE: Wait…Wait…NOW! Quickly climb onto the host, since I can’t jump or fly.
  • FINAL STEP: Find a thin patch of skin to burrow into for a blood meal.

That’s a lot of work to get the meal I need to change from this tiny larva with six legs into an eight-legged deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) nymph.

My Growth

I will grow from the size of a period at the end of sentence to poppy seed size. Then I repeat this whole procedure to become a sesame seed-sized adult, but this next time I may go for a larger host like a whitetail deer or human!

Our Appearance

If you take a magnifying lens to get a close look an adult, you will see we have eight black legs. That’s how we got our other common name – black-legged tick. Check out the patch behind the head, the scutum, which is a solid dark color. The females sport an orange color wrapping around the scutum while the smaller males are all brown. Take note of our large mouth parts that make our heads look really big.

Life Cycle

The adult males do not need a host meal in order to mate, but before the female lays her eggs, she needs a third blood meal from another host. This time she may feed on her host for several days until her abdomen more than doubles in size. Once full, she drops off her host and finds a spot in the moist leaf litter to lay her hundreds to thousands of eggs in scattered clusters. The eggs hatch the following spring.

This whole life cycle usually takes two years to complete, but sometimes a female may overwinter and take an extra year to lay her eggs. Most ticks do not survive finding their required life-stage hosts and die before reproducing.


For some reason, humans despise us. Maybe because we can transmit up to seven different diseases to them, the most famous being Lyme disease.

To avoid becoming one of our hosts, humans should follow the following steps:

  • Avoid narrow forest paths with tall grass.
  • Wear long pants tucked into socks and long sleeved shirts.
  • Treat clothing with permethrin or spray exposed skin with DEET.
  • Complete a tick check taking care to check behind ears and knees, hair lines, arm pits, between legs and waistline.
  • Take a shower using a washcloth.
  • Within 24 hours, remove any attached ticks by grasping the head with a tweezer and pulling straight up.

If you follow these simple steps, we can all share the great outdoors together!

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