How a Mysterious Tick Ended Up in a Scientist’s Nose

By Jennifer S. Holland

Please forgive Tony Goldberg for picking his nose.

That little itch turned out to be a tick, and he had to get it out of there. Ticks are, after all, known carriers of several nasty diseases. Plus, it was a tick. In his nose. He wanted it gone ASAP. Turns out, it was a species never before genetically described.

tick picture
A tick in the genus Amblyomma. Photograph by Gabriel L. Hamer

Goldberg—an unsqueamish veterinary epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison—was recently working in Kibale National Park in Uganda studying non-human primates and the way primate diseases might make the leap to humans. (Such diseases are called, appropriately for this story, zoonoses.)

When he got home, there had indeed been a transfer from ape to man. “I realized something was up, so to speak, when I felt a very slight pain in my right nostril—way the heck up there,” he said.

He’d had such offensive hangers-on before—three, in fact—so he quickly identified his stowaway as a tick. It had probably been hiding and feeding there for several days. To remove it, he first considered, but quickly dismissed, the Bunsen burner in his lab.

Instead, “I employed tweezers, a mirror, a flashlight, and some contortions I wish I’d captured on film,” said Goldberg. “I got the whole tick, mouthparts and all, with a minimum of collateral damage to surrounding nose hairs.” (Read about a leech that lives in people’s orifices.)

Tick Diseases on the Rise

Ticks, of which there are nearly 900 species so far described, are adaptable creatures, often specialized to live on specific animals or in rather peculiar places.

Goldberg, with the help of Harvard collaborator Richard Wrangham, looked closely at high-resolution photos of the faces of chimpanzees at their study site in Uganda and saw that nostril ticks were common.

Though the apes seem to enjoy picking their noses, they can reach only so far.

“High inside the nostril is one of several places that would be ‘anatomically inaccessible’ to ape fingers,” Goldberg said. It’s possible that other dark orifices are housing these ticks, too, but the scientists suspect the species is particularly adapted to the primate schnoz.

DNA testing of the potentially new species, by Goldberg and colleague Sarah Hamer at Texas A&M University, revealed the tick to be a known but little-studied species of the genus Amblyomma, a group of some 140 species known to carry diseases that can infect people (those zoonoses, again).

In the United States nine major diseases are tick-borne, and the number of human infections has been steeply climbing since 2000. This increase could be in part from more or different ticks moving into new areas (following changes in climate, for example) and a rise in how often people and ticks come together (related to changes in land use and a growing human population).

Higher rates of infection may also be due to unknown disease pathways, Goldberg said, and of course new diseases: A team from Columbia University and colleagues studying emerging zoonoses estimate that some 320,000 mammalian viruses have yet to be discovered—and viruses are just one cause of disease.

More to Learn

Fortunately, other than a sudden craving for bananas, Goldberg feels fine—and, with Hamer, Wrangham, and others, even published a study about his hitchhiker in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

He also marveled at how parasites can hide from the immune systems of their hosts in so many wonderful ways.

“Clearly, we have more to learn about the remarkable diversity of species, disgusting or beautiful—my nose tick being the latter—that inhabit our planet.”

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