Tony Goldberg, a US professor of pathobiological science, recently returned from an Africa research trip only to discover that a potentially new species of tick had come back with him hidden up his nose.
“When you first realize you have a tick up your nose, it takes a lot of willpower not to claw your face off,” said Goldberg, a professor at the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. “But my sense of being grossed out was balanced by my scientific curiosity.”
Goldberg only noticed the insect three days after his return to the US and removed the insect using a pair of forceps, a mirror and a torch. He then sent it off to have its DNA sequenced and compared it with the archives in the U.S. National Tick Collection at Georgia Southern University (home to the largest tick collection in the world). He found no match.
“… Now I had an undamaged example I could study.
As I sealed the tick into a tube and put it in the freezer, I reflected on how it had come to stow itself away undetected. It must have been waiting in ambush on the forest floor as I passed, then made its way right up my body. Discovering it in my nose had been alarming enough, but thinking about it crawling across my face to get there was truly disturbing.
Once I got the genetics report back from the lab, though, my unease turned to excitement. The DNA sequence of the tick could not be matched with any existing database. At the very least, my specimen was a member of a species that had never been genetically tested before, but it could well be of a type previously unknown to science.
A colleague who’d been studying high-resolution photographs of the chimps I’d been researching found that many of them had ticks of the same type up their noses. No evidence of this phenomenon had been found before, and I now believe these particular ticks have evolved specifically to hide inside the nostril cavities of chimps, where they can feast in safety, away from their host’s habitual grooming regimes.
It could well be that the Ugandan nostril ticks have yet to spread beyond the particular park where we conducted our research. We now have to return and set traps to catch more, so we can do further study. It’s a tremendously exciting project for me, and could prove vitally important: we know my tick managed to latch on to me undetected, and we need to ensure others don’t stow away on international flights and establish colonies in other countries, where they could potentially spread exotic diseases.
A biologist can spend a whole career hoping to make such a breakthrough, and there’s a special kudos attached to being able to carry out a study on a subject of which you have personal experience. The discomfort and revulsion I went through is a very reasonable trade-off. I feel genuinely grateful to the tick for choosing me as its host.
The original post was from 2013. Ticks are a growing problem in the US and we are supposedly experiencing an epidemic of Lyme disease in 2018 as I update this.