Do ticks fall from trees?

Busting this common myth with Dr. Thomas Mather

We sat down with Dr. Thomas Mather, a prominent expert in tick research, to tackle the misconception that ticks fall from trees. Despite a previously released video debunking common tick myths, which saw over half a million views, many viewers remain convinced that ticks do fall out of trees.

Dr. Mather addressed comments from viewers who shared personal accounts of ticks "raining" from overhead foliage. He countered these experiences with facts about tick biology and behavior, explaining that ticks seek high-humidity environments and are unlikely to be found in the dry upper branches of trees. He emphasized that ticks do not voluntarily detach from hosts, debunking the idea that ticks drop from heights to find new hosts.

The session also clarified common mix-ups between ticks and similar-looking insects like aphids and weevils. Dr. Mather encouraged those adamant about their tree-falling tick encounters to participate in the TickSpotters program, which aims to verify such claims through scientific analysis.

By inviting public participation and providing factual information, Dr. Mather hopes to enhance public understanding of tick behavior, reducing unwarranted fears and promoting better prevention against tick-borne diseases. This discussion underscored the importance of science in dispelling myths and safeguarding public health.

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Transcript of the Interview

Mary Collins: Hi, this is Mary with Insect Shield and I am back today with Dr. Tom Mather, our tick expert. Welcome Tom.

Dr. Thomas Mather: Thank you for having me.

Mary Collins: Okay, Tom, we basically called an emergency session of our Equip-4-Ticks. And Discussions with you. We have something, a myth that you busted, but we need further busting on. So basically last year with your assistance, we put out a video about five top myths about ticks. It's had over 500, 000 views, a lot of people getting a lot of great information.

So we're super excited about that, that we're really getting, debunking myths and getting people to know about ticks and how to protect themselves and what to look for. But one of the myths that you debunked, people do not believe. It to be debunked. And this is the myth that ticks fall from trees.

People believe that ticks do fall from trees and they believe you are wrong, that they do not. So i'm just going to read a couple of the comments we got and then i'd like you to give us your opinion and further knowledge as A tick expert, and probably, and one of the top leading experts, not probably, one of the leading experts of ticks in the U.S. and probably in the world. Do you agree with that, Tom?

Dr. Thomas Mather: That's awfully kind.

Mary Collins: Everyone I know, everyone says, oh, Dr. Mather, he knows everything about ticks. Okay, so here was one. I have personally seen ticks fall from trees like drops of rain. It was a sunny day, but it sounded like raindrops hitting the dry leaves.

We would stop walking. And soon the drops would also stop, and then take a few more steps and the raindrop sound would start again. The sky was blue and we were very confused. Then I felt a drop on my, hit my head, and simultaneously noticed my friend's shirts. covered in ticks. We brushed them off and sprinted out, but I had five ticks already embedded by the time I got back to the room.

They were definitely deer ticks and falling on us from above head level. Another one. I have found ticks on my roof while painting eaves and trims. They're definitely in trees. I have walked under oak trees and had a tick land on my arm. Excuse me. Squirrels get ticks and fleas. They do sometimes fall from above.

They may not live there, but they do fall from trees. I had two ticks drop down literally on me from the tree I was sitting under. Ticks do fall from trees onto their prospective hosts. I witnessed it twice this weekend. And then the last one, of many Ticks can fall out of trees. Yes, they don't climb up the trees, but they get up by being on an animal like a squirrel or raccoon. So Tom, hearing those comments, and if you could impart some wisdom, give us some more information, what would you say? Because these people believe ticks have fallen from trees

Dr. Thomas Mather: Yeah, we hear this all of the time and really the proof is in the pudding. So I would challenge all of those people the next time That they had a tick that they were confident fell out of them on the tree. Take a picture of it. And I think that's the best thing because we've actually asked people to do that.

There was one gentleman in Oregon who sat under the same tree every day when he had his cigarette break. And he said they always are falling. out of the trees on my head. And I don't know, for one, I'm not sure why he kept going back to the same spot if he, but what he finally did was send us a picture to our Tick Spotters program.

And as certain as I was that it wouldn't be a tick, I was right. It was an aphid. So aphids fall out of trees. Aphids have six legs, but they look a lot like a tick. Although ticks would have eight legs. if they were dropping out of trees trying to get on you. And so it was an easy thing to debunk at that point.

I actually don't know one tick biologist across America that believes that ticks fall out of trees and it's just a biological thing, really. Ticks need humidity in order to survive long periods of time when they're not on a host. When they're on a host, they're sucking on blood, right?

And so when, if they were on a bird, a whole flock of birds flying overhead and some tick decided that's when it was filled with blood and it was going to drop off because they don't drop off. When they're not filled with blood, once they're attached, they stay attached. Anyway, so let's imagine this tick fell off of a bird.

It would have been an engorged tick. It wouldn't really be looking for another blood meal. The likelihood of a tick getting on you from, let's say, birds overhead is very unlikely because any tick that would fall off of a bird would be a blood fed tick and it wouldn't be looking for another blood meal for months.

Similarly from squirrels and raccoons that might be in trees, yes, ticks will be on those animals. and they'll take a blood meal and then they'll drop off of those animals. But the environment up in a treetop isn't conducive for long term survival of these ticks. So they would drop off full of blood.

They're not ready to eat again for months, right? And so they have to go through a transformation process growing into the next stage. And they would be doing that in a habitat that isn't. Humid enough for them to survive. Just if a nymphal stage tick drops off of your cat in your house, it's not going to be able to survive until it becomes an adult to get back on you again when it's looking for a next blood meal because it's just not humid enough for the tick to survive.

So the, the biological properties that allow ticks to live are really the thing that keeps me at least understanding that this is just a myth and there's probably other explanations for all these little bugs falling onto people. And when we look at that. There are certain what we call tick lookalikes.

People think they look like ticks. In fact, 5 percent or so of the things that people send to us through TickSpotters are not ticks. They're things that people think are ticks, but they're not really ticks. And weevils are the number one thing.

Mary Collins: live in trees?

Dr. Thomas Mather: are oak weevils. There are many species of weevils and, some of them feed on acorns.

They have six legs, but they have a little snout. And, in fact if a lot of them are so snouted that, if that was a tick, that would be a honking bite that you would get from that snout. But they don't bite. Weevils don't bite. They're not ticks. Aphids don't bite.

really don't bite. They might try to latch onto your skin or something like that to hold on because, you're big and they're little, but yeah, they're not going to, they're not going to bite. Aphids feed on plants. Weevils feed on leaves and seeds and things like that. Those are the two most common things that are tick lookalikes that actually do fall out of trees.

Mary Collins: So in, so we would, in most of these cases, it's most likely a look alike situation because, and I've been with you and, we've been looking at tics together and tics, even like the adult tics, are tiny. So even for a layman to look at it and go that looks like that's a tic without even maybe having a magnifying glass I don't know if you could put those three things next to me and I've studied tic They'd have to be pretty big for me probably even to tell the difference at this tiny little You know as you say like poppy seed or size or sesame seed Would I with my naked eye actually even be able to tell a difference because I'm not an expert in looking at ticks all day Like you No,

Dr. Thomas Mather: be hard pressed. The easiest thing is if you could focus. A lot of times people just see little specks and they assume they're ticks because they're afraid of them. They also, what I've learned is one of the reasons that perpetuates this is that people don't want to believe when they find a tick in their head that the tick had actually crawled across their entire body because that just doesn't work.

They just don't want to believe that, so it must have fallen out of a tree onto their head to get to their head. But really in, in reality we can, if you're patient you can put a tick on your ankle and in about five minutes it will have crawled up to your head. That's just what ticks do.

They like to crawl up. A gross thing to think about. I don't think we'd get very many people volunteering for that experiment. But and certain ticks, American dog ticks in particular, are very robust and it seems while they may get caught up in a hairline or something they almost, you know, Always get to the very top of your head, so they're like, it's like Mount Everest for them, I think.

They're the overachievers that get to the top of the head. And why did the ticks do that? And so that's a, that's probably a story for another day, but, there's just thinner skin and more vascularization in the head, head region of animals and people. And so it's easier to steal blood and it's, Usually, ticks have adapted to ending up in places where they're not going to be found or groomed off by the host.

And where the skin is thinner and they're going to be able to steal blood more easily.

Mary Collins: Thank you so much, Dr. Mather, for helping us hopefully debunk this myth. And, I think. Putting the call out there to people saying, hey, if you see this happen, snap a picture, set, go to your website, and that's the tick encounter

Dr. Thomas Mather: Spotters. You could actually just Google Tick Spotters. It'll come

Mary Collins: send a picture.

Dr. Thomas Mather: form, attach the picture, fill out the form and tell us, show us what you're seeing. We're happy to, we're happy to learn and we're happy to look, but the people that gave you those testimony, testimonials earlier those are just five or six of the hundreds.

hundreds that we've heard and we've been able to debunk them for the most part when people have, provided the evidence that they have. But yet, I think people just want to believe differently, but biology is against the whole thing and just the practicality of it all. Just think of a tick.

That wouldn't be a very good Host finding strategy to be using falling out of the sky because, it's not like they are trained parachutists that they can zero in on a host or anything. So think of all of the misses that they would have. And yeah, the ticks are in it to win it.

Then winning it for a tick is finding a host and taking a blood meal so it can grow to the next stage or, lay eggs. And yeah, that it wouldn't be a very smart natural selection process to utilize falling out of the sky as a strategy for finding a host.

Mary Collins: Thank you so much, and hopefully we've helped debunk this myth, and also given people, if they, still believe it, we've given them a way to help prove it, because we're talking science here, and if we can have evidence then that we can back it up with that, excellent. And we will put some links actually on the bottom of this to your tick lookalike page also.

I think then people can maybe take a look at that and then see that, okay, maybe that wasn't a tick. That's all out of the sky onto my head. 

Dr. Thomas Mather: Yeah, we could, talk about tick lookalikes since it's a fairly common phenomenon. The very most common one actually is interesting is one called a spider beetle. And spider beetles are household pests. They're humpy looking. Some of them are black and red, so people think that they're a black legged tick because black legged ticks are black and red.

But if you count their legs, they have six legs and they have long antennae out the front. So ticks don't have antennae and ticks that size would have eight legs. They almost always are found when people send them to us. They say, Oh, I found this in my bathroom. So they tend to like bathrooms and they also get in linen closets, which sometimes I suppose are in bathrooms.

And so people find them on their bed and that's probably the most common tick lookalike that we get. And people I understand people think they're ticks cause they're little and they are the right color and they can't really see them like you were saying, they can't really see them carefully.

Carefully enough, but when we, when they have a picture that's what they turn out to be.

Mary Collins: Excellent. I think that's something, this is some more good knowledge and maybe in our original Mythbusters, we didn't go into quite enough kind of the idea of the look alike and let people maybe be a little bit more observant, not just because something, a small black little insect y thing fell on me that it's a tick.

There's many that look like it. So hopefully

Dr. Thomas Mather: Yeah, so we can make them into tick experts by training them what, just what makes a tick and what makes a bug not a tick. 

Mary Collins: Thank you so much, Tom, for joining me today and hopefully we've we've debunked the myth that ticks fall from trees because they do not according to all of the leading tick experts, including yourself. So thank you.

Dr. Thomas Mather: Thanks again.