Ticks: Life Cycle & Reproduction

Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

You probably consider ticks to be annoying pests. However, despite their ability to make your life miserable, ticks are pretty interesting critters. This lesson will examine the life cycle of a tick and then take a closer look at tick reproduction.

What is a Tick?

Ticks can cause medical problems such as rashes, vomiting, fevers, skin ulcers, and a rapid pulse. They can also cause stomach pain, sensitivity to light, tiredness, and paralysis. But ticks aren't ALL bad. You may be familiar with ticks as pests that affix themselves to your body and drink your blood, but how much do you truly know about them? A tick is an arachnid, and is related to scorpions and spiders. There are more than 850 tick species (80 alone in the United States), and they need the blood of a host to survive. There are two main tick categories: hard ticks, which have a plate-like structure on their back, and soft ticks, which look kind of wrinkly. This lesson will offer some generic information on ticks, specifying between the hard and soft variety when appropriate. Let's begin by looking at the tick life cycle.

Tick Life Cycle

The life cycle of a tick can be divided into four sections: larvae, nymph, adult, and egg. Since there are so many different tick species, the duration of this life cycle varies greatly, from a few months to years. Below is a general summarization of the tick life cycle, which can vary depending on the type of tick.

Stage 1: The larvae

Let's start just after an egg hatches and a six-legged larvae, or a tick that isn't fully formed, emerges. The larvae cannot jump onto a potential host, so it climbs on a piece of vegetation and waits for a small animal, like a lizard or rodent, to walk by, at which point it attaches. Ticks can sense a host is present through several factors, including the release of lactic acid, carbon dioxide, and ammonia, as well as body heat. Once it senses a host, the tick starts moving its front legs around to grasp and cling on. Some species can attach anywhere on the host, whereas others seek particular spots, like ears or other thin-skinned areas. Once attached, the tick will become engorged with blood and increase in size. After the larvae are filled with blood, they release themselves from the host and begin to molt, or shed their skin, as they grow into the next stage.

The life stages of the Lone Star Tick

Stage 2: The Nymph

In stage two, the larvae are larger, and they grows two more legs, thus becoming nymphs, which is another immature stage of the tick. Nymphs usually do not feed during the winter months, but once ready, they (like the larvae) set out to find a host. They typically choose larger animals such as a raccoon or a fox. As in the larvae stage, the nymph feeds on the blood of its host and then detaches and molts.

Stage 3: Adult

The tick has now reached the adult stage. It still requires blood to grow, so (as seen in stages 1 and 2) it waits for a passerby and attaches. This time it seeks the largest host, such as a human, deer, or dog. The adult tick spends the fall season feeding and then mating (more on mating in the next section). In many species the males die after mating and the female dies after laying her eggs.

Stage 4: The Egg

Some females lay eggs on the host, others on the ground. Depending upon the tick, somewhere between 1,000 and 18,000 eggs are released (can you imagine having 18,000 babies!?). The eggs will hatch in the summer, thus beginning the larvae stage again.

Tick life cycle

Before we delve into tick reproduction, let's take a moment to note some differences between the hard and soft ticks.

  • Soft ticks typically do not die after mating, and the female will have several egg batches throughout her life.
  • Soft ticks may molt numerous times during the nymph stage.
  • The adult female hard ticks look different from the adult males. Primarily, females are larger and a different color. The male and female soft ticks look more alike.

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