Professor of Pathobiological Sciences at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Tony Goldberg, came back from a trip to western Uganda with an unexpected passenger: a tick stowed away in his right nostril.
“When you first realize you have a tick up your nose, it takes a lot of willpower not to claw your face off,” he says. With true scientific calmness, he resisted the temptation and instead carefully removed the wee beastie with forceps and a mirror in order to study it.
The DNA sequence of the stowaway was analysed, and it was found that it had no match to a known species in a database. “Either it’s a species of tick that is known but has never been sequenced, or it’s a new species of tick,” says Goldberg, who then managed to narrow down the genus of the nose tick to that of Amblyomma.
This is where it gets really interesting, as ticks of the genus Amblyomma are known carriers of disease. There is the possibility then that disease could be spread internationally through hidden hitchhikers in travellers’ nostrils, particularly in people who have had close contact with monkeys. “This could be an underappreciated, indirect, and somewhat weird way in which people and chimps share pathogens,” Goldberg says.
The big question I suppose is why was the tick there in the first place? Well, Goldberg believes that the tick may have evolved a desire to hide away in noses to avoid being groomed off by other chimps. “Chimps are highly intelligent and social,” says Goldberg. “Above all else, grooming is what they use to bond their society. They’re absolutely nuts about it.” It makes sense then that it would be beneficial to the tick to find a nice warm area out of danger, like a nostril.
Will we soon have our noses examined for unwanted guests at check-in when we fly? Probably not, no. But as Goldberg says, “When you get a tick up your nose, you tell the story.”