Is That A Tick Up Your Nose?
October 2, 2013

Researcher Finds Potential New Tick Species Right Under His Nose

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Most people would not view having a tick up their nose as a good thing, but University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine professor of pathobiological sciences Tony Goldberg viewed it as an opportunity.

Goldberg reportedly discovered a tick following a trip to Kibale National Park in western Uganda where he had been studying how infectious diseases spread and evolve in the wild. He removed the tick using a long forceps, a flashlight and a mirror and then froze it until he had an opportunity to study it further.

Once he returned to his laboratory, he and his colleagues sequenced the tick’s DNA and discovered it did not match the genetic code of any known tick species in any database. Thus, as Goldberg’s team reported Monday in the online edition of the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, he either serendipitously stumbled across a new type of tick, or at the very least, one that had not been previously sequenced.

“When you first realize you have a tick up your nose, it takes a lot of willpower not to claw your face off,” said Goldberg, who also serves as the associate director for research at the UW-Madison Global Health Institute. However, according to the university, his is not the first documented case of nose ticks hitching a ride with a human, and other experts have speculated they typically infest chimpanzees.

Curious as a result of his experience, Goldberg contacted Harvard University biological anthropology professor Richard Wrangham to investigate the phenomenon. Wrangham, a chimpanzee expert, and his associates had recently started using high-resolution digital photography to study molar eruptions in baby chimps.

By analyzing his photos, Goldberg was able to discover ticks present in the noses of 20-percent of the creatures. Additional research involving reviews of previously published papers revealed that the nose tick discovered by the UW professor most likely belonged to the genus Amblyomma – known disease carriers.

The discovery, Goldberg explained, could shed new light on “an underappreciated, indirect, and somewhat weird way in which people and chimps share pathogens.” Furthermore, he said this type of parasite could easily avoid detection during international travel, and given the frequency with which people go from one country to another, there is a possibility exotic tick populations could be established, spreading disease to other nations.

The professor, who has spent many years living in Wisconsin and is quite familiar with wood and deer ticks, had never previously heard of anyone who wound up with a tick in their nose. He believes the phenomenon could be due to the grooming habits of the chimpanzees native to the Ugandan forest, as the ticks hide in the nostrils in order to avoid being “groomed off” by the “highly intelligent and social” creatures.

“Infectious disease and immunology researchers often look at how viruses and other pathogens avoid the complex immune system inside a host,” he added. “This is paralleled on a macro scale with ectoparasites, which have apparently evolved mechanisms to counter external host defenses, such as grooming. So it's not just a tick up my nose – there's a lot of depth to this.”

It is still unclear if the new tick is actually a new species. The specimen removed from Goldberg’s nose was a nymph, not an adult, so it could not be identified by its morphological features. The species of the chimp ticks also had yet to be determined. Since it is not safe or practical to remove the parasites directly from their hosts’ noses, the researchers are currently attempting to catch ticks on the forest floor using traps.