Overcoming a variety of substrates

Scientists have investiged the adhesion mechanisms of ticks. On the basis of their experiments conclusions can be drawn about the equipment of future technical surfaces with anti-adhesion effect.

A male tick attached to a resin replica of human volar skin by seven of eight feet. Source: Dagmar Voigt/TUD -

Ticks spend more than 90 percent of their up to three-year-long life starving and clambering around in leaf litter and on vegetation. They walk remarkable distances while periodically exploring distal plant parts in order to prey on their victims. Once they get to humans and animals, the little parasites walk along skin and hairs, searching for suitable feeding sites.

Transparent claws contain resilin

How the bloodsuckers overcome the variety of substrates and manage to cling on to various surfaces is shown by researchers from Technische Universität Dresden (TUD) and Kiel University (CAU). Their adhesion experiments have led to new deductions on the function of ticks’ feet. “The fact that not only the pad, but also the transparent claws contain the elastic protein resilin is surprising, because we have never observed resilin in arthropod claws before,” said Dagmar Voigt from TUD.

Sticky pads can be folded an unfolded

With these sticky pads, ticks are able to attach easily to smooth surfaces like human skin and glass. Depending on the situation and required power, the pads can be folded and unfolded – similar to an accordion. An adhesion-mediated fluid adds to the adhesion of the pad. While walking in litter or on contaminated surfaces, ticks frequently fold back their feet and run on their tarsal-tibial joint.

Females are stronger than males

Males are rather small and access the host body for copulation purposes only. Thus, their feet are smaller and attach less than females. On glass, females generate forces corresponding to more than 500-fold of their own body weight in order to ensure their safety. During blood sucking, the female body weight can increase up to 135 times. The scientists also showed that the attachment was worse on skin silicon replicas and on micro-rough resin surfaces.

Almost generalists

“As to attachment, ticks are almost generalists due to the combination of their soft adhesive pads and tapered claws; but not entirely. Our experiments clearly show, how a future technical surface, having anti-adhesive properties for ticks, could look like,” summarised Stanislav Gorb from CAU. Thus, ticks could be prevented from attaching to skin and hair.

The study is published in: Journal of Experimental Biology 2017, 220.

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