Deer Tick

Ixodes scapularis

Last updated: May 27, 2024
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© Steven Ellingson/

Commonly found on white-tailed deer


Deer Tick Scientific Classification

Scientific Name
Ixodes scapularis

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Deer Tick Conservation Status

Deer Tick Locations

Deer Tick Locations

Deer Tick Facts

Name Of Young
Group Behavior
  • Solitary
Fun Fact
Commonly found on white-tailed deer
Biggest Threat
Ingestion by mites or nematodes
Most Distinctive Feature
Black legs
Other Name(s)
Deer tick, black-legged tick
Gestation Period
1-30 days
Litter Size
300-3,000 eggs
Common Name
Deer tick
Number Of Species
North America

Deer Tick Physical Characteristics

  • Brown
Skin Type
2 years
2-6 mm

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“Because of their dark-colored legs, deer ticks are often called black-legged ticks.”

Out of all the ticks native to North America, the deer tick is one of the most problematic. Ticks have been around for a very long time, over 100 million years. Today, there are more than 900 distinct species of ticks living on every continent (even Antarctica). Around 700 species are ‘hard-bodied’ ticks of the Ixodidae family. The deer tick is one of these hard-bodied species.

Deer ticks are capable of ingesting so much blood that they engorge up to six times their normal size. When they latch onto a victim, they actually secrete an anesthetizing substance that deadens any pain inflicted by the bite. Like vampires, ticks live solely on blood. But, unlike Dracula—they don’t kill their victims, though they may impart blood-borne diseases to them.

4 Incredible Deer Tick Facts!

  • Deer ticks are the main vector for Lyme disease
  • They’re known as a ‘three-host’ tick
  • Females have different coloring than males
  • Deer ticks are so named because they often feed on white-tailed deer

Deer Tick Species, Types, and Scientific Name

The deer tick’s scientific name is Ixodes scapularis. They’re also known as bear ticks or black-legged ticks. Ticks were first described in North America in 1754 in New York state. Deer ticks in particular are known throughout the eastern and midwestern United States, as well as southern Canada. They share many habitats with other species of tick, like the American dog tick, lone star tick, brown dog tick, and wood tick.

Appearance: How to Identify Deer Ticks

Deer ticks are extremely small; adults are about the size of a sesame seed. Their bodies are composed of three main parts; head, abdomen, and legs. As members of the arachnid family, they have eight legs; they’re closely related to mites. 

The deer tick’s body begins with the cephalothorax, better known as the head, or capitulum. In hard-bodied ticks, the capitulum is located at the front of the body; it’s visible to the naked eye. The head includes the mouthparts, which are made up of two chelicerae (jaws) and a hypostome. The hypostome is a tongue-like organ the tick uses to anchor itself to the host while feeding.

Behind the head is a hard shield structure called a scutum; it partially covers the tick’s abdomen. The abdomen contains all of the tick’s internal organs, it’s also where all the blood is deposited when feeding. An unfed tick has a black abdomen about the size of a sesame seed—a fully engorged deer tick’s abdomen turns gray and expands like a blister.

Deer ticks start life with only six legs, but, as they mature, they grow another two. Adult ticks have eight legs composed of seven segments each. Each leg ends in a claw; deer ticks can both run and climb in search of hosts. When the deer tick feeds, it actually climbs to the end of a branch, or the tip of a blade of grass, and holds its two front legs aloft in the air. When a potential host brushes by, the front legs latch on.

A Deer tick, a parasitic biting insect on background of human epidermis.
A Deer tick, a parasitic biting insect on the background of human epidermis.

© Kubeš

Life Cycle: How to Identify Deer Tick Eggs

Deer ticks have a four-stage, two-year lifespan. They start out life as one of several thousand eggs all clumped together in an egg mass on the forest floor. On hatching, larval deer ticks are so small that they’re nearly invisible to the naked eye. That doesn’t mean they can’t bite though; their usual prey at this tiny stage includes small mammals, birds, and reptiles.

After a larval deer tick successfully feeds, it falls off the host and molts into a nymph. The nymph has a full complement of eight legs. Nymphs again find a suitable host; they may stay attached for a period of days. Then, once fully engorged, they molt one more time, this time developing into sexually mature adults. 

Adults often feed sometime in the fall, then stay dormant in leaf litter or organic detritus throughout the winter. In the spring, females lay a large clutch of several thousand eggs, then die. Any or all of their life phases may be longer or shorter, depending on both the climate and the availability of hosts. It’s not unheard of for ticks to die of starvation because they can’t find anything to parasitize. 

Habitat: Where to Find Deer Ticks

Deer ticks live throughout the eastern and midwestern United States as far north as southern Canada. They’re most often found in second-growth forests where forested areas meet open areas. They favor areas with heavy underbrush, or thick, uncut grass. Deer ticks are most common in the spring and summer months, though they can also bite people and animals in the fall.

Diet: What do Deer Ticks Eat?

Deer ticks are obligate hematophages. This means that they eat blood and only blood. Sound a little morbid? Well, like leeches, ticks are the vampires of the natural world. Unlike vampires, they feed on creatures both great and small. Young deer ticks in the larval or nymph stage are very small, so they feed on smaller creatures. These include mice, rats, lizards, birds, and other small creatures. 

As they get bigger, their prey gets bigger too. Adult deer ticks are especially fond of white-tailed deer. They also feed on opossums, raccoons, birds, and medium-sized mammals. Deer ticks will also bite humans and their pets if they happen to come into tick-filled areas.

What Eats the Deer Tick?

Deer ticks are most commonly preyed on by mites and nematodes, which both eat tiny insects. Birds of all kinds also eat ticks, so do lizards, frogs, and toads. One larger animal that eats ticks is the opossum. Opossums don’t go around hunting deer ticks though, instead, they ingest them when they groom themselves. Deer ticks that attempt to feed on opossums almost always meet a dark end.

Deer Tick vs. American Dog Tick

Deer ticks are the biggest vector of Lyme disease in North America, so it’s important to be able to tell what kind of tick you’re looking at. They’re most often confused with the American dog tick. The easiest way to tell the difference between the two is by looking at their size; American dog ticks are much larger than deer ticks. The next feature that sets them apart is the legs; deer ticks have black legs, while American dog ticks have brown legs. Finally, if you’re still not sure—look at the coloring on the abdomen. American dog ticks have white markings, while deer ticks have no markings.

What to do if a Deer Tick Bites You

The best method for avoiding a deer tick bite is to stay out of the deer tick habitat. This means staying on the trail, and out of the underbrush. Don’t walk anywhere where your clothes or body brush against shrubs or grass, as that’s how ticks primarily find their hosts. If you must explore the underbrush in tick country, wear long pants, long socks, and long sleeves. For even more protection, tuck your shirt into your pants, and your pants into your socks.

If you do find a tick on you or your pet, don’t panic, and don’t wait to remove it. Ticks are best removed with tweezers or tick removal tools. Do not squeeze the tick so hard that it pops, or breaks apart. Instead, grasp firmly close to the skin, and gently, slowly, pull it out. Then, thoroughly clean the bite with alcohol or soap and warm water.

Because deer ticks transmit Lyme disease, you’ll want to monitor any bite for a period of one month. If you develop a circular, bullseye rash around the bite, seek immediate medical advice. Further, seek medical attention if you develop a fever, muscle aches, headache, or rash.

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About the Author

Brandi is a professional writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her nonfiction work focuses on animals, nature, and conservation. She holds degrees in English and Anthropology, and spends her free time writing horror, scifi, and fantasy stories.

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  1. University of Wisconsin / Accessed February 23, 2022
  2. Wikipedia / Accessed February 23, 2022