Ticks home in on body heat: A new understanding of Haller's organ and repellent action
Carr, Ann L.
Salgado, Vincent L.
Ticks are second only to mosquitoes as vectors of disease to humans and animals. Tick host detection is mainly ascribed to Haller's organ, a complex sensory structure on the tick foreleg that detects odors, carbon dioxide and heat, but these host detection mechanisms are not well understood. There is anecdotal evidence that ticks and other ectoparasites are attracted to heat, but it has never been demonstrated that they use radiant heat to detect hosts at a distance. In fact, previous attempts to do this have concluded that radiant heat was not used by ticks. Here we use a novel thermotaxis assay to investigate the detection range, temperature dependence and repellent sensitivity of heat perception in ticks and to identify the sensory organ responsible for this sense. We show that Amblyomma americanum and Dermacentor variabilis ticks can locate a human from several meters away by radiant heat sensed by the part of Haller's organ known as the capsule, a covered spherical pit organ. An aperture in the capsule cover confers directionality and highly reflective interior surfaces of the capsule concentrate radiation on the sensilla to sharpen directionality and increase sensitivity. Commercial insect repellents provide an effective means of personal protection against potentially infectious tick bites by hindering host-seeking behavior. Low concentrations of the insect repellents DEET, picaridin, 2-undecanone, citronellal and nootkatone eliminate thermotaxis without affecting olfaction-stimulated host-seeking behavior. Our results demonstrate that the tick Haller's organ capsule is a radiant heat sensor used in host-finding and that repellents disrupt this sense at concentrations that do not disrupt olfaction. We anticipate that this discovery will significantly aid insect repellent research and provide novel targets for the development of innovative integrated pest management programs and personal protection strategies for ectoparasites and vector-borne disease.