Identifying blacklegged ticks

Smaller than American dog ticks

tick comparison
Blacklegged ticks (left) are smaller than American dog ticks (right) which can be spotted by the white markings on their back. (Photo credit: Public Health Agency of Canada)
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Lyme disease alert

Protect yourself from ticks

Map of blacklegged tick areas in Manitoba

Winnipeg Health Region
Published Friday, May 25, 2012

You probably don’t want to know that there are 40-some tick species in Canada, including the two most commonly found in Manitoba - the American dog tick and the blacklegged tick.

Most Manitobans refer to the American dog tick as the “wood tick.” In contrast, blacklegged ticks are fairly new to the province, having first been found in the province in the Gunton area of the Interlake in 1989, according to Dr. Robbin Lindsay, a Research Scientist with the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“The visual difference between the adult American dog tick and the blacklegged tick is that the first has white markings on its back,” said Lindsay. “More importantly, the blacklegged tick has the ability to transmit Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease in both the nymph and adult stages; something the dog tick doesn’t do.”

The first population of blacklegged ticks in Canada was documented in the 1970s at the Long Point peninsula on the north shore of Lake Erie, although this population may have been present at this location for many decades.  In contrast the first known blacklegged tick population in Manitoba was reported in 2006, said Lindsay.

Lyme disease was first found in the United States in Connecticut in the mid-1970s. In the USA, a National Institutes of Health-funded project has sequenced at least 17 strains of the bacterium, and has published 13 of those so far.

“Blacklegged ticks are like microbial sponges for various pathogens including the ones that cause Lyme disease, human anaplasmosis and human babesiosis,” said Lindsay. “Ticks can carry more than one pathogen, which can lead to people being co-infected with two things at once. But that’s very rare.”

Areas of the province where the blacklegged ticks are established include: the southeast corner of Manitoba; the area around the Stanley Trail in south-central Manitoba west of the Red River; and the area in and around Pembina Valley Provincial Park near the United States border.

But ticks are also suspected of being established in the Pembina Valley to the north and west of Pembina Valley Provincial Park near La Rivière and roads 22N and 57W; Beaudry Provincial Park west of Headingley, the area around the communities of St. Malo and Arbakka in south-central Manitoba.

Blacklegged ticks can be found in wooded areas, along streams and river banks, or along the edges of forest and prairie habitats with woody shrubs and other vegetation, plenty of leaf litter and high humidity. The greatest risk of tick exposure occurs in the areas of the province identified with established or suspected established blacklegged tick populations. Tick season runs from early spring to late fall in Manitoba.

Before you stop going into the woods, remember that not all blacklegged ticks are infected with the bacteria. 

“The tick must be attached for at least 24 to 48 hours to transmit the bacteria,” said Lindsay, adding this is because the bacteria needs time to migrate from the tick’s gut to its salivary glands. Because of this delay, prompt detection and removal of ticks is one of the key methods of preventing Lyme disease.

The nymphal stage typically occurs during the summer months and is the stage most likely to infect people with Lyme disease. This is due to their small size which prevents people from promptly noticing and removing them from their bodies.

Lindsay says no matter where you live in southern Manitoba, you should be on the look-out for the ticks. Ticks can be transported to widely separated areas of southern Manitoba by migratory birds. In his job, he regularly gets out to hunt for ticks.

“Because it’s a big province, we ask veterinarians and doctors about cases, and ask the public to submit ticks. We look for patterns of where the specimens came from, looking for clusters,” he said. “Then we go drag sampling, where we pull a blanket through the vegetation. After dragging, we’ll live-trap some animals like mice and squirrels, and check them for ticks, and test their blood to see if they’re been exposed to the bacteria.”

Approximately 300 blacklegged ticks were submitted in 2011 in the fall tick-submission campaign.

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