What Do Ticks Look Like?

Written by Peralee Knight
Published: April 30, 2022
Image Credit iStock.com/cturtletrax
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Let us be honest, ticks are just gross. Finding anything that resembles a tick on your skin or clothing is more than disgusting – it is scary! Identification is crucial, but there are many insects that look like ticks, and many species of ticks as well. So, what do ticks look like? The easiest way to tell if you have a tick on your clothing, body, or pets is to assume that any small, dark-colored, round bug with eight legs is a tick.

Even if you are unsure, removing the suspected tick immediately is more important than identification! However, some species of ticks cause serious illnesses like Lyme disease when a person is bitten. Once a tick is removed, it is time to identify the tick and determine if a bite needs treatment!

What Do Ticks Look Like: The Basics?

Tick Header - Tick Burrowed In
Ticks are arachnids, like spiders and scorpions.

Evgeniyqw/Shutterstock.com

There are around nine hundred distinct species of ticks found worldwide and ninety species in North America alone. There are two main types of tick species; hard and soft. This refers to whether the species has an exoskeleton covering the body. It can be easy to mistake more harmless insects for ticks. Thankfully, there are quite a few ways that all tick species can be identified, and closer inspection easily clears things up!

Ticks Are Arachnids, Not Insects

Ticks are arachnids, the same class of animals that encompass other species such as spiders and scorpions. Therefore, the physical features that are common for all arachnids easily help to identify an adult tick. Adult ticks will always have four pairs of legs, though larval ticks and younger nymphs may have three. Ticks develop their fourth set of legs in the nymph stage, which is the final stage before full maturity.

Like most arachnids, ticks of all species will also have a fused cephalothorax, meaning the middle and bottom sections of the body appear to be one section. This gives ticks a distinctly round appearance, which is more pronounced when they are engorged with blood.

Ticks vs Other Arachnids Or Insects

Big Dog tick, full of blood, with eggs on the body.
Humans and pets tend to pick up nymphs and adults for the most part, and nymphs lack the fourth set of legs found in adults.

wilddog.prg/Shutterstock.com

Adult ticks lack antenna, which is another way to tell these arachnids from insects. Ticks can also be identified by their scutum, a shield-shaped patch on the back directly below the head. Both hard and soft tick species have this shield.

Identifying Ticks By Life Cycle

Ticks have four life stages, egg, larval, nymph, and adult. Apart from the egg stage, ticks are parasitic and feed on blood throughout all other three stages. For each stage, a tick seeks a new host and stays on them for an average of 24-48 hours. Humans and pets encounter ticks primarily during the nymph or adult stage.

Remember, always treat a suspected tick found on the clothing, body, or your household pets as though it is a tick. If possible, remove the tick and place it into a sealed container before attempting identification. If you are unsure of whether the tick is one of the species that cause illness, seek medical attention!

How To Identify Dangerous Ticks?

If you believe the tick you have encountered is a species that poses the risk of disease, seeking medical attention is crucial! Ticks that cause a serious risk of illness transmit those diseases within 24-48 hours of attaching to a host. However, if you are placed in a situation where immediate treatment is not possible, it is important to know how to identify the most dangerous species.

It is also important to note that all tick species are a cause for concern. While species like the deer tick are known spreaders of dangerous diseases, any parasitic animal brings risks. Ticks of any species bring the risk of infection or even an allergic reaction.

Deer Tick

An adult female deer tick crawling on a piece of straw.
The deer tick’s abdomen turns grey when engorged.

Steven Ellingson/Shutterstock.com

Deer ticks are small, hard ticks the average size of a sesame seed when unfed. They are most easily identified by their black legs and head and their reddish-brown bodies. However, the abdomen of a deer tick engorged with blood turns a grey color. Deer ticks are one of the most dangerous species. This is due to the high likelihood of transmitting Lyme disease to humans.

Rocky Mountain Wood Tick

Rocky Mountain Wood Tick, Dermacentor andersoni on a blade of grass.
Rocky Mountain wood ticks vary in coloring depending on their gender, with males having beige spotting and a tan scutum.

South12th Photography/Shutterstock.com

This species can only be found at altitudes of 4,000 feet or higher and are primarily found near the mountain range they are named after. They only seek a human host as an adult. Rocky Mountain wood ticks have reddish-brown legs and abdomens with a pattern of beige spotting on the male, and seven segmented legs with claw-like tips. Males also have a tan scutum, whereas females are the same color over the entire abdomen. Rocky Mountain wood ticks are around the size of the head of a match when unfed and are the main spreaders of the Colorado tick fever virus.

Lone Star Tick

Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americanum) on a white background.
Lone star ticks are dangerous due to their very small adult size, which makes them harder to find until fully engorged.

iStock.com/epantha

This species is exceedingly small and difficult to spot with the naked eye. Lone star ticks are a medium, almost translucent reddish-brown color throughout the body. Only females have a distinct white dot on the abdomen. While not known as a serious risk for illnesses like Lyme disease, this species extremely small size makes them dangerous. This is due to a much lower likelihood of detecting them until they are already engorged.

American Dog Tick

Female American Dog Tick, Dermacentor variabilis, sitting on a rock.
The American dog tick is the main spreader of Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Elliotte Rusty Harold/Shutterstock.com

This species is a mahogany brown color with mottled tan markings on males and looks quite like the Rocky Mountain wood tick in color and size. Identifying these ticks can be difficult due to their resemblance to dog ticks and brown dog ticks. They have shorter and wider heads and a more oval-shaped body than other tick species. Females lack the mottling and are solid brown with a tan scutum. American dog ticks are the main spreaders of Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

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