Tony Goldberg brought back an unusual souvenir from his trip to Africa. The University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who had visited Uganda to study the spread of infectious diseases had a possible discovery right under his nose -- or more precisely, stuck in it.
“When you first realize you have a tick up your nose, it takes a lot of willpower not to claw your face off,” Goldberg, professor of pathobiological sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "But my sense of being grossed out was balanced by my scientific curiosity."
Once removed, the tick was subjected to DNA sequencing, which revealed it may belong to a new species. Working with colleagues from Texas A&M University and the U.S. National Tick Collection at Georgia Southern University, Goldberg determined the tick’s DNA didn't match any in the database.
“Either it’s a species of tick that is known but has never been sequenced, or it’s a new species of tick,” Goldberg said in a statement. The tick may belong to the same kind found in the nostril of chimpanzees at Kibale National Park in Uganda, where Goldberg was conducting his research.
Goldberg referred to previous studies that have described similar nose ticks belonging to the genus Amblyomma. “Amblyomma are known disease carriers, so this could be an underappreciated, indirect and somewhat weird way in which people and chimps share pathogens,” Goldberg said.
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Ticks, which normally bite human skin in locations like armpits, groin and hair, don’t usually go up noses. Golderg says this particular kind of tick could have adapted in such a way to avoid being “groomed off” by its host.
"If you're a tick on a chimp, you're in danger if you can't hide," Goldberg told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Chimps have little noses and fat fingers. If I were a tick, I'd probably go up the nose too."
The nose tick’s habits may shed light on how tiny parasites adapt to the behavior of their host. “Infectious disease and immunology researchers often look at how viruses and other pathogens avoid the complex immune system inside a host,” Goldberg said. “This is paralleled on a macro scale with ectoparasites, which have apparently evolved mechanisms to counter external host defenses, such as grooming. So it’s not just a tick up my nose — there’s a lot of depth to this.”
Goldberg’s nose tick was a nymph, not an adult, so DNA sequencing could identify the genus but not any morphological features. Scientists plan on catching adult ticks in Kibale National Park by using sticky-tape traps and observing them under a microscope to see whether the tick is new or whether its DNA has already been sequenced.
“It’s not really practical or safe to pick ticks out of chimps’ noses,” Goldberg said. “The chimps of Kibale are very well habituated to humans, but they would still object vigorously.”