Field of Science

The Dermacentor Ticks

Pacific Coast tick Dermacentor occidentalis, copyright Jerry Kirkhart.

Among the ticks of most concern to humans are species of the genus Dermacentor. This genus of about forty known species is widely distributed in Africa, Eurasia and the Americas. Examples include the meadow tick D. reticulatus in Europe, and the wood tick D. variabilis and Rocky Mountain wood tick D. andersoni in North America. They are parasites of mammals, including both generalist and more host-specific species; records of Dermacentor individuals from reptiles and even carpenter bees (Goddard & Bircham 2010) presumably represent incidental and/or accidental associations. Species of Dermacentor are responsible for the spread of bacteria causing diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever (which, despite sounding like a 1950s dance craze, is presumably not much fun), Q fever and tularemia. The ticks can also be more directly hazardous, as their bites inject a toxin that can cause tick paralysis.

Distinguishing features of Dermacentor species relative to other ticks include a rectangular base to the capitulum, relatively short, broad palps, well-developed eyes and the presence of festoons (impressed divisions of the posterior margin of the body) (Keirans 2009). Most are ornate—that is, marked on the dorsum with contrasting pale patterns—with the notable exception of the tropical horse tick D. nitens of the Americas (until recently, often treated as forming its own genus Anocentor). The function of such markings is unknown though suggestions include environmental protection, warning predators of distastefulness, or sexual signalling.

Meadow tick Dermacentor reticulatus, copyright Ferran Turmo Gort.

The majority of Dermacentor species have a three-host life cycle, dropping off the host between each of the life stages of larva, nymph and adult, and seeking out a new host after moulting. However, at least two New World species, the aforementioned D. nitens and the winter tick D. albipictus (a parasite of deer), are one-host ticks that remain on their original host between instars. In general, Dermacentor species are more resilient to dry climates than many other tick species. Individual species can differ in their climate tolerance, however. In North America, the geographical divide between D. variabilis in the east of the continent and D. andersoni in the west seems to be driven by the need for the latter of drier conditions (Yoder et al. 2007). Older instars also tend to be hardier than younger. Females of the ornate sheep tick D. marginatus, a European species, leave their host after gorging at the beginning of winter and then wait for more amoenable spring conditions before laying their delicate eggs (Dörr & Gothe 2001).

Higher relationships within the genus do not appear to have been extensively studied. A preliminary molecular phylogeny of hard ticks has suggested the possibility of a basal division between Afrotropical, Eurasian and New World lineages (Barker & Murrell 2004). Comparison with related tick genera raises the possibility of an Afrotropical origin for Dermacentor, though the genus has only a relictual presence in that continent now. However, with only a handful of species subjected to broad phylogenetic analysis to date, further testing is demanded. Does the continental divide hold true? Do the one-host species form a single clade within the genus? Inquiring minds wish to know.


Barker, S. C., & A. Murrell. 2004. Systematics and evolution of ticks with a list of valid genus and species names. Parasitology 129: S15–S36.

Dörr, B., & R. Gothe. 2001. Cold-hardiness of Dermacentor marginatus (Acari: Ixodidae). Experimental and Applied Acarology 25: 151–169.

Goddard, J., & L. Bircham. 2010. Parasitism of the carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica (L.) (Hymenoptera: Apidae), by larval Dermacentor variabilis (Say) (Acari: Ixodidae). Systematic and Applied Acarology 15: 195–196.

Keirans, J. E. 2009. Order Ixodida. In: Krantz, G. W., & D. E. Walter (eds) A Manual of Acarology 3rd ed. pp. 111–123. Texas Tech University Press.

Yoder, J. A., D. R. Buchan, N. F. Ferrari & J. L. Tank. 2007. Dehydration tolerance of the Rocky Mountain wood tick, Dermacentor andersoni Stiles (Acari: Ixodidae), matches preference for a dry environment. International Journal of Acarology 33 (2): 173–180.

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