Ticks use static electricity to jump on faraway hosts

Just when you thought the nasty pests couldn’t get any worse.
Loukia Papadopoulos
A tick on human skin.jpg
A tick on human skin.

Ladislav Kubeš/iStock 

If you thought ticks were unpleasant before, this new study is bound to make matters worse. Researchers at the University of Bristol have discovered that ticks can be propelled across air gaps several times larger than their body lengths by the static electricity that their hosts naturally accumulate.

This allows them to make contact with hosts that are beyond the reach of their tiny legs, bringing diseases farther than previously thought possible.

This is according to a press release by the institution published on Friday.

Lead author Sam England from Bristol's School of Biological Sciences explained: "We knew that many animals, including humans, can accumulate quite significant electrostatic charges.

"We see this when we get a static shock after bouncing on a trampoline, or when rubbing a balloon on our hair, for example. But this electrostatic charging also happens to animals in nature when they rub against objects in their environment like grass, sand, or other animals. These charges are surprisingly high, and can be equivalent to hundreds if not thousands of volts -- more than you get out of your plug sockets at home! Importantly, static charges exert forces on other static charges, either attractive or repulsive depending whether they are positive or negative.

"We wondered whether the static charges that mammals, birds, and reptiles naturally accumulate could be high enough that parasitic ticks could be lifted through the air by electrostatic attraction onto these animals, therefore improving their efficiency at finding hosts to feed on."

In their experiments, the scientists witnessed the ticks being readily pulled through the air across air gaps of several millimeters or centimeters.

 "First, we used previous measurements of the typical charge carried by animals to mathematically predict the strength of the electric field that is generated between a charged animal and the grass that ticks like to sit on and wait for hosts to pass by,” said England.

"Then, we placed ticks underneath an electrode, with an air gap in between, and increased the charge on the electrode until the ticks were attracted onto the electrode. By doing this we were able to determine the minimum electric field strength at which the ticks could be attracted. This minimum electric field was within the order of magnitude predicted by the mathematical calculations of the electric field between a charged animal and grass, therefore it is likely that ticks in nature are attracted onto their hosts by static electricity."

The research team now hopes that the discovery may lead to new technologies that can  minimize tick bites in humans, pets, and farm animals, such as anti-static sprays.

"We have now discovered that ticks can be lifted across air gaps several times larger than themselves by the static electricity that other animals naturally build up. This makes it easier for them to find and attach onto animals that they want to latch onto and feed from. Until now, we had no idea that an animal could benefit from static electricity in this way, and it really opens up one's imagination as to how many invisible forces like this could be helping animals and plants live their lives,” England concluded in the statement.

The findings are published in Current Biology.

Study abstract:

Most terrestrial animals naturally accumulate electrostatic charges, meaning that they will generate electric forces that interact with other charges in their environment, including those on or within other organisms. However, how this naturally occurring static electricity influences the ecology and life history of organisms remains largely unknown. Mammals, birds, and reptiles are known to carry appreciable net electrostatic charges, equivalent to surface potentials on the order of hundreds to tens of thousands of volts. Therefore, we hypothesize that their parasites, such as ticks, are passively attracted onto their surfaces by electrostatic forces acting across air gaps. This biophysical mechanism is proposed by us to assist these ectoparasites in making contact with their hosts, increasing their effective “reach” because they are otherwise incapable of jumping. Herein, experimental and theoretical evidence show that the tick Ixodes ricinus can close the gap to their hosts using ecologically relevant electric fields. We also find that this electrostatic interaction is not significantly influenced by the polarity of the electric field, revealing that the mechanism of attraction relies upon induction of an electrical polarization within the tick, as opposed to a static charge on its surface. These findings open a new dimension to our understanding of how ticks, and possibly many other terrestrial organisms, find and attach to their hosts or vectors. Furthermore, this discovery may inspire novel solutions for mitigating the notable and often devastating economic, social, and public health impacts of ticks on humans and livestock.