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Tick Collector: Expecting the Unexpected on an Undergraduate Tropical Field Course

By Dr. Zen Lewis

Zen Lewis

I was very interested to read the blog post about Tony Goldberg’s tick experience in Kibale, in which he found a new tick species in his nose. Who would have thought that the ticks I had removed from my student Steph, which I’m convinced are identical or similar to the ones that Tony was subjected to, were a new species?

Less than 24 hours after arriving at the Kibale Forest in Western Uganda for our annual Tropical Ecology Field Course in 2012, Steph came to see me with a problem that we, the staff, certainly hadn’t expected. A problem that was small in size, but potentially big in consequence.

“There’s something in my navel, I’m sure there is,” she said. “Right at the back. It hurts when I press it.”

I was kneeling in front of her, peering anxiously at her stomach with a flashlight.

“Steph, I really don’t think… Oh. Wait a minute.”

There was something small and grey and very unassuming, deep within the folds of her naval.

“Crap, I think you’re right. How the hell are we going to get that out of there?”

Ticks such as this one have been found in the noses of chimpanzees in Uganda. Photo: Andrew B. Bernard. Courtesy University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine.

On day one, as always, the students were given the “awareness talk.” Always be on the lookout. You never know what cool things you’re going to see, or where. Keep your wits about you and expect the unexpected. We also warned the students of some of the possible downsides of life in the tropics. Parasites were mentioned, for example, such as the mango flies that lay their eggs in wet clothes so the larvae can bury themselves into your skin, and the jiggers, fleas that hide out in grass and then burrow under your toe nails. Nice.

We had only been in Kibale Forest for two days before Steph said, “Zen, I’ve got another one.”

I burst out laughing as I turned to face her, and then promptly stopped when I saw the look on her face.

“You’re not joking?” I asked.

She mournfully shook her head.

I’d come across ticks before, although in somewhat less exotic conditions. Years previously I had gone for a swim in a river on Dartmoor in the southwest of England, and then fallen asleep on the riverbank in the sun — yes, we do sometimes see the sun in the UK. I woke up an hour later, covered in over thirty small black dots, which on closer inspection revealed themselves to be sheep ticks. After a brief moment of panic — where I bravely almost threw up — I hot-footed it back to my parents’ house where I meticulously “drowned” the ticks in toothpaste before scrubbing them off, a technique (old wives’ tale?) I had heard was the best way to remove ticks.

Fast forward to Uganda 2012. Medical advice changes. “Tick-removal by toothpaste” is no longer the “done thing.” The thought now is that essentially stifling embedded ticks with a viscous substance such as toothpaste may cause them to remove their heads from the skin, but they may also vomit, which, if they are carrying any nasty diseases, is obviously not a good thing for the host mammal. The advice these days is to slowly and steadily pull the tick from the skin with a pair of sharp tweezers.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t much fancy directing a pair of sharp tweezers anywhere near another human being, and particularly not a student in my care. This had most definitely NOT been covered in my first-aid training! But Steph was clearly in distress, unsurprisingly given another living organism, potentially carrying a nasty disease or three, had decided to set up camp in her tissue. A makeshift clinic was set up — i.e., Steph was asked to lie down on the veranda — a colleague was drafted in to hold a flashlight to her stomach, and I went for it.

I’m not ashamed to say it was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. I could have pulled out the tick, but left the potentially disease-carrying head still in Steph’s skin. If she sat up suddenly in pain or shock, I could have stabbed her in the stomach. To be fair, I did ask my colleague to hold her down, just to be on the safe side. Anyway, it was terrifying… but a success. I managed to remove the whole animal, drowned it in a tube of antiseptic fluid, and sent Steph happily away to look at it through a microscope. It was supposed to be an educational trip, after all. I relaxed.

Then on day two, Steph told me she had another tick. Once I’d finally ascertained that she wasn’t joking, I asked the most fundamental of questions.

“Where is it?”

Gingerly, Steph pointed at her nose.

Nostrils are even darker hiding places than belly buttons, much more sensitive, and worse still, close to the brain. This was infinitely more terrifying.

I won’t, dear reader, go into details of how I removed a tick from deep inside a student’s nostril that day — I still shudder even to think of it. Needless to say, the tick was removed and the student left my “clinic” with her brain intact. Steph went on to pick up another nose tick, which thankfully hadn’t yet embedded properly, and thus she only had to blow her nose to dislodge it, and another tummy tick. She was the only student to “collect” ticks that year, and by the end of the field course, we were seriously discussing possibilities such as taping up her naval, and asking her to wear a face mask as she slept. It is well-known that blood-sucking arthropods often prefer certain individuals. I fell foul of this quirk of biology myself, as on the day of my own tick infestation my companion didn’t pick up a single one, despite being asleep next to me. Unfortunately, in Steph’s case it seems she was the human of choice that year in Kibale.

Unexpected occurrences, in fact, seem to be the norm on a tropical field course. Despite our annual warnings about mango flies and jiggers, we have never seen them. I did, however, have Josh on my veranda one morning with a small rash on the side of his chest. Over the course of the trip, this rash grew to cover a good two-foot area of his skin, and ended up lasting for more than six months. At the time we suspected it was plant-induced, but despite visits to numerous specialists back in the UK, no one could ever work out what it was. Thankfully the rash eventually disappeared of its own accord. A small, innocuous-looking spider fell onto Poppy’s shoulder one day when she was writing up back at camp. What we assume was its bite swelled into a painful, one-inch-diameter blister that took days to heal. One night a snake nonchalantly made its way through the packed bar where we were having a beer. It turned out to be a non-venomous species, but we certainly didn’t know that at the time.

And yet, it is the unexpected that makes a place like Kibale a biologist’s paradise. In terms of sheer biodiversity, it is second to none, and as we check our makeshift insect trap each evening — a bare bulb hung in front of a white sheet — we know that a large proportion of the insects we are seeing are as yet undescribed species. As an educator too, Kibale must be unrivalled as a teaching location. Although the focus of the course — as it should be — is to teach our students the skills of observation, experimental design, and analysis — the cornerstones of scientific enquiry — I do feel that the students would rave about the trip just as much if we were to wander around the forest each day just LOOKING.

We have come to expect the unexpected — and indeed, undescribed — on our annual foray to Kibale. No two years are ever the same, but every year is an amazing experience. I for one cannot wait to go back.

Please note: no students were ultimately harmed in the making of this article.


Dr. Zen Lewis is a teacher and researcher at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology, where she studies the fields of evolutionary biology and behavioural ecology, and uses arthropod model systems to investigate questions in sexual selection, sexual conflict, and reproductive biology.

Follow here on Twitter at @Zen_of_Science.


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