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What Is a Black Tick?

By R. Britton
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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There are two types of black tick: eastern — Ixodes scapularis— and western — Ixodes pacificus. Both are more commonly known as deer ticks, are very similar, and are members of the arachnid family. The black tick is a parasitic organism which feeds on a variety of hosts over its two-year life cycle. This tiny creature, like many other tick species, is a common carrier, or vector, of a variety of bacterial infections, including Lyme disease and babesiosis.

The black tick is very common particularly across North America, and can be easily picked up by humans if precautions are not taken. A member of the arachnid, or spider, family, the black tick is a parasite unlike the spiders to which it is related. A parasite is an organism which uses another organism for food and shelter and to complete its reproductive cycle.

As a parasitic organism, the black tick feasts upon the blood of its chosen host, switching to a new host after each stage of the life cycle. After hatching from the large clutch of eggs, the first stage, or larval, tick finds a small mammal. One of the most common hosts for larval black ticks is the white-footed mouse, but any small mammal will suffice. Once on the host, the tick burrows its comparatively large mouth parts beneath the surface of the skin and begins to feed on the blood of the mammal.

It is at this point that the larval tick is most likely to contract the bacteria which causes Lyme disease and other potentially harmful or lethal bacteria. Ticks can also contract and carry other smaller parasites, such as the single-celled, or protozoan, Babesia microti which can pass to large mammals such as cattle, horses, and humans via a bite from an infected tick. If a larval tick bites an infected host, the tick will carry the smaller parasite or bacteria through to maturity, potentially passing the infections to each host it feeds upon.

Once large enough, the larval tick detaches itself and sheds its exoskeleton as it transforms into a nymph after several months. The cycle then repeats until the nymph has gained enough nutrients from the blood of its host to develop into a full-grown adult. The adult black tick attaches to a new host, which tends to be a much larger mammal, such as a deer, a cow, or a human.

The mature black tick once more burrows the mouth parts through the skin of the host, where it injects a chemical that thins the blood and prevents clotting. Feeding for a mature female black tick can last for several weeks and involve multiple hosts. Eventually, the tick drops from the final host and lays up to 300 eggs on the ground before dying, completing its two-year life cycle.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1003497 — On Jul 06, 2020

I had what looked like a tick on my arm 3 times, but it wasn't attached. It was round and black but I didn't see any legs. My dog had been outside but she is on a flea and tick pill. Could it still be a tick?

By mobilian33 — On Jun 06, 2014

This article mentions early on that black deer ticks can be carriers of Lyme disease. In fact, the deer tick is the number one tick in terms of Lyme disease ticks. One thing that makes the deer tick more dangerous is its size. It is extremely tiny and difficult to see unless it has been feeding for a time and become swollen with blood, so you may have one attached to you and not notice it for a while.

A friend once asked me to check a spot on her back because it felt funny and was itching. I looked and saw there was a red area surrounding what looked like a mole, and since there were other moles on her back I recognize the tick as mole and not a tick. Fortunately, after a couple days she figured out what it was and she didn't get sick, so all was well. I did feel terrible about not seeing the tick and removing it.

By Feryll — On Jun 05, 2014

@Laotionne - This article mentions the two types of black ticks and goes on to give the two scientific classifications for the ticks commonly called black ticks. So, to answer your question, no, the ticks are not actually classified by color. These ticks are also commonly called black-legged ticks.

Different species of ticks can be different colors depending on what stage of development they are in and on whether or not they are filled with blood, so color is not always a reliable way to tell one type of tick from another. The black deer tick looks more gray or greenish when it is filled with blood, and so do many other kinds of ticks.

By Laotionne — On Jun 04, 2014

I know ticks can be different colors, and I have heard people identify them according to their color, but are the different species actually identified by color, and if so which ones (colors) are more dangerous?

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