Acarology: Definition & History

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from the University of Memphis, M.S. from the University of Virginia, and B.S. from Mississippi State University. She has over 10 years of experience developing STEM curriculum and teaching physics, engineering, and biology.

Ticks and mites are tiny creatures, but they can cause some big problems. In this lesson, learn about acarology, the scientific discipline that studies these important arachnids.

What is Acarology?

In a wooded area just outside of town, Selina is preparing to collect some ticks. She puts on her boots and long pants and then gets a piece of fabric attached to a frame out of a sealed box in the back of her truck. Holding the frame, she starts walking through the woods, dragging the fabric behind her. After a few minutes, she checks the fabric and sees that she has successfully picked up some ticks, so she heads back to the truck to take them back to her lab.

An acarologist collects ticks by dragging a piece of fabric across the ground
An acarologist collects ticks by dragging a piece of fabric across the ground

While most people are happy to NOT pick up any ticks while walking in the woods, Selina went out looking for them! Why would she do that? Selina is interested in collecting ticks because she is a scientist that studies ticks and mites. The scientific study of ticks and mites is known as acarology, and scientists, like Selina, who study these tiny animals are called acarologists.

What are Ticks and Mites?

The types of animals studies by acarologists, ticks and mites, are both arachnids, which means that they have eight legs and are related to other arachnids like spiders and scorpions. Ticks live mainly outdoors in wooded areas, and they survive by attaching to an animal and drinking its blood. For this reason, ticks are often carriers of blood-borne diseases like Lyme Disease. Acarologists have an important role to play in helping us to understand the biology of ticks so that people can be protected from the diseases carried by ticks.

Lone star ticks, like this one, are one type of animal studied by acarologists.
Lone star tick

Unlike ticks, most mites do not pose much of a danger to human health. The majority of mite species eat tiny insects or decaying plant material, but a few species can bite animals and even humans. These usually live on or around birds and small rodents but can also infect people in some cases. The types of diseases caused by mites are usually much less serious than those caused by ticks, but cases of skin dermatitis are commonly caused by mite infestations.

Scabies is a type of skin dermatitis caused by a tiny biting mite. It causes intense itching and skin irritation.
Image of a scabies rash

History of Acarology

People have been living in close contact with ticks and mites for thousands of years. The earliest written description of a tick has been dated to about 1500 BC, and references to ticks occur throughout history in literature. However, it wasn't until the late nineteenth century that acarology began to be studied by scientists.

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