Friday, March 25, 2011


I've just returned from the East Coast where spring seems to be arriving faster than on the West Coast. I was welcomed with 65-70 degree Fahrenheit weather for the beginning of my stay, while the Bay Area was being pummeled with rain, hail and thunder. I think it's appropriate if I take at least some of the credit for the sunny weather that followed me across the country, don't you?

I was staying in a house with a few animals, one of which was an adorable dog named Mable. Check this babe out:

Photo Credits: Mary Jane Photography // March, 2011

Mable and I instantly bonded over a shared experience: Ixodoidea (ticks of the hard variety). We've all had one attached to us at one point in our lives, unless you live in a bubble. Mine was in elementary school on a hiking trip. My mom found it attached to the back of my neck, just below my nape, and proceeded to freak out about lyme disease. I ended up fine, as always. Luck of the draw, I suppose. 

Tick on a Chick.

Since the weather is starting to warm up a bit in Pennsylvania, ticks are out on the prowl. Poor Mable has experienced a few in the last few weeks, specifically two on the day that I arrived. Now, I happen to have a talent for finding ticks and such on people and animals. Is it a talent? a gift? a ticks-sense? Whatever it is, I've mastered it, and was able to find two on Mable within 10 minutes of being in her house. What a way to meet someone! 

 Deer Ticks (Ixodes scapularis) shown fully engorged with blood on the right.

The next day, we relaxed together, enjoying the 70 degree Fahrenheit weather in shorts (, not Mable.), laying on the giant trampoline in the backyard and going on a few walks to pass the time. As I lay on the giant trampoline (so comfy! who would have thought?), I pondered the parasitic prey that varied from coast to coast. Are ticks worth an entry on the ol' blog, or are they old news? I mean, they're practically everywhere, varying with geographically specific species (over 900 species, to be exact!). Yet, I got really excited when I read about the recent coverage of ticks in China (Mable, we're not alone!).

Apparently, a new virus has been isolated, and is associated with tick bites.  The new virus, termed SFTSV, which stands for Severe Fever with Thrombocytopenia Syndrome bunyaVirus (a stupid name, in my opinion) was discovered via isolation after filtration of the infected patients' blood samples. Ticks are symbiotically  associated with bacteria that can cause many problems and illnesses with humans (example: Lyme Disease), so researchers naturally had their sights set on something much larger than their actual viral cause. 

The virus, isolated in over 170 patients in China, has shown relation to the viral family Bunyaviridae, which is a class V virus on the Baltimore Classification Scale. This classification indicates that the virus is a negative strand RNA virus, much like it's genus-brothers Hantavirus, Nairovirus, Orthobunyavirus, Phlebovirus, and Tospovirus. 

The fun thing about Bunyaviruses that infect humans (as they are usually found in rodents and arthropods, hence the cute little vector!) is that when they do, they are usually super deadly! SFTSV has been associated with a relatively high mortality rate, causing death in 30 percent of initial reports. Later, the percentage was lowered to only 12 percent ("oh, I guess this one isn't really dead!"). The reason for the high mortality rate is that humans usually experience major organ failure, extreme fevers and/or hemorrhagic fevers (meaning, your insides can start melting and leaking out of your orifices). SFTSV has caused major gastrointestinal problems and organ failure in many of the cases seen in China.

Scientists have stated that humans are a "dead end", as in, the SFTSV will only spread through tick-transmission, not through human-to-human contact or aerosolization. This makes sense, since they've only seen this in people that had confirmed tick bites, meaning the initial infection is assumed to be through a blood meal, but I'm sure they'll find that contact with infected fluids will also spread the virus.

So, get ready for those sunny days, and remember to check yourself thoroughly for ticks after being out in the wilderness. SFTSV has only been isolated in patients in China, but Lyme Disease has been found in many areas, so keep an eye out for symptoms of fatigue, fever and the characteristic rash:

Also, if you are interested, there are hundreds of videos on YouTube about how to remove a tick. One of the main things to remember is that you must remove the entire tick, including the head. If the head is left inside the wound, it could get infected.

 Mable wants you to think of all the people who are infected with SFTSV.

Friday, March 4, 2011

M is for March, and Maggots

I'm sure I don't need to start this by saying I haven't been purposefully neglecting this blog, I really am rather busy. Truly, honestly. But, since I feel so badly about not writing as regularly as I had hoped 3 months ago, I'll make it up by writing about one of my favorite subjects to talk about on a first (and usually last) date.

When you say "fly" to the average person, they usually think about the common house fly, or possibly a unicorn soaring elegantly over a pastel rainbow. Yet, when I think of flies, the first thing that pops into my head is the Botfly. Why? Because its disgusting and amazing.

Botflies are particularly special, because their larvae live as parasites during their development and maturation process. Why would you want to mature in the vast world of exposed nature when you have the opportunity to embed in the flesh of another living species?

Let's break down the amazing lifecycle of the botfly, because its rather unheard of for flies to deposit their eggs anywhere other than...well, you generally only hear of maggots and fly eggs/larvae around garbage cans and dead things, right? These flies are bold, and think that their larvae deserve a better environment than a trashcan. The female botfly, a large and dominating specimen, carries the eggs. She waits until she sees a suitable intermediate vector flying around a suitable host, such as a tick near a grazing animal or a mosquito that is preparing to feast on a human. Once the female botfly has chosen her target, she tackles the insect mid-flight. They begin to fall and roll, and as this happens, the female botfly deposits her eggs onto the intermediate vector and flies away.

I know, this sounds weird, and it definitely is, but the botfly species is smart for doing this. Most species recognize the large botfly as a threat, and will avoid any contact. Yet, if the eggs are disguised on another, much smaller species, then everyone wins!

So now, we've got the intermediate vector covered in eggs. It regains flight and goes after its bloodmeal (although, not all intermediate vectors for the botfly consume blood). When the intermediate vector lands on the mammalian host, the eggs are attracted to the heat, causing them to drop and land on the flesh of their new host. The intermediate vector takes a meal close to the location of the eggs, and they burrow towards the new opening in the flesh.

Once inside, they make their way to a comfortable area under the skin and develop for approximately 8 weeks. They survive subcutaneously by breathing through small tubes in their butt that open at the surface of the skin. These are visible, and will bubble if held underwater.

When the larvae is ready to emerge as a pupae and continue developing in the wild, it will burst from the flesh of it's host. If you can stomach it, here is a video:

Botfly larvae have a distinct "hook" mechanism that allows them to attach to the layers of the skin and avoid being pulled out. If you have a botfly infestation, they must be removed with minor surgery or suffocated before removal. You can see the hooks in these photos, they are clearly visible as the darker spots that form rings around the body.

And here is an awesome photo of a dead (suffocated) botfly larvae being removed from someone's head:

Botflies can be a large issue for small farms raising animals, and for stables holding horses. Also, if the wound is licked, possibly by the animal itself (we've all seen dogs lick their wounds), then the larvae can burrow in the intestinal tract and cause severe infections.

There are many different species of botflies, and they are found all over the world, including in the United States. Now that the weather is going to start warming, you can think of this every time you leave the house!

Happy Spring!