Scientists discover static electricity attracts ticks to their hosts

Researchers at the University of Bristol have found that ticks can be sucked through air gaps many times larger than themselves by the naturally occurring static charge on their host. Since ticks cannot jump, this is the only way they can establish contact with hosts other than their tiny feet, which increases their chances of finding a host to parasitize.

The findings, reported in the journal Current Biology, represent the first case in which static electricity has been linked to the attachment of one animal to another.

Many dangerous infections, such as Lyme disease, are carried by ticks and can lead to the death of humans and animals. Therefore, trying to reduce ticks’ ability to attach to humans and animals would have significant social and economic benefits.

According to lead author Sam England of the School of Biological Sciences in Bristol, many species, including humans, can generate sizable electrostatic charges.

The researcher said, “We see this when we get a static shock after bouncing on a trampoline or when rubbing a balloon in our hair, for example. But this static charge also occurs with animals in the wild when they rub against objects in their environment like grass, sand or other animals.”

These charges are surprisingly high and can equate to hundreds if not thousands of volts – more than you would get out of the socket at home! It is important that static charges exert force on other static charges, either attracting or repelling, depending on whether they are positive or negative.

The researchers asked if the static charges that mammals, birds and reptiles naturally accumulate could be so large that parasitic ticks could be attracted to these creatures by the static electricity and take flight. medium, increasing the ability to find a host to feed on.

The team’s initial test involved bringing statically charged materials, such as rabbit fur, close to ticks to see if they would attract ticks. They saw how easily these charged surfaces could pull ticks through air gaps of a few millimeters or centimeters, the equivalent of a person jumping up several flights of stairs.

The strength of the electric field created between a charged animal and the grass the tick likes to sit on while they wait for the host to pass was then predicted mathematically using previous measurements of the charge. normally carried by animals.

He say, “We then placed the tick underneath an electrode, with an air gap in between, and increased the charge on the electrode until the tick was attracted to the electrode. In this way, we determined the minimum electric field strength to which the tick could be attracted.”

This minimum electric field is within the order of magnitude predicted by mathematical calculations of the electric field between a charged animal and the grass. Therefore, it is very likely that ticks in the wild are attracted to their host by static electricity.

Many other parasites, such as ticks, fleas or lice that want to contact and attach to their hosts, also experience this phenomenon, making it possible to serve as a common mechanism for animals to come into contact and attached. This discovery allows the creation of new technologies, including antistatic sprays, to reduce tick attacks in humans, animals and farm animals.

The ability of ticks to be sucked through air gaps many times their size by static electricity that other animals naturally accumulate makes it easier for ticks to locate and connect with animals objects they want to cling to and feed on.

Now scientists will see if ticks can detect the incoming charge of their potential host.

Reference magazine:

  1. Katie Lihou, Sam J. England, et al. Static electricity passively attracts ticks to the host. Current biology. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2023.06.021

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