Ticks are vectors for several serious diseases (meaning that they can transmit these diseases to humans), including Lyme disease, babesiosis, and anaplasmosis. Melissa Yost-Bido ’19 studied something called Haller’s organs: chemosensory organs (essentially, a very special type of smell) that ticks have on their front legs, and that is thought to help them detect pheromones, carbon dioxide, and infrared radiation. As you can guess, all that ticks really care about, is how to find a host (such as a mouse, or a human), to attach to them, and feed on their blood. Being able to detect animal smells and heat would definitely help here!
Many methods of tick-borne disease prevention that are used now, harm not only ticks, but also other, good, beneficial organisms. If we learn more about the Haller’s organ, we can try to find new ways to fight ticks, by making sure that they cannot find new hosts. Melissa studied the ability of the Haller’s organ in blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis; the nastiest ticks around here) to detect infrared light. She collected local ticks, separated them into groups, and then either left their Haller’s organs intact, or removed them. Then Melissa exposed each tick from each group to infrared light (heat), and recorded the distance that each tick moved towards the source of infrared radiation. She found that ticks with a Haller’s organ traveled farther towards the heat, compared to those that had their Haller’s organs removed. This suggests that Ixodes ticks can use Haller’s organs to detect warm bodies, which is something nobody had ever shown before!