Tony Goldberg, a US professor of pathobiological science, recently returned from an Africa research trip only to discover that a potentially new species of tick had come back with him hidden up his nose.
"When you first realize you have a tick up your nose, it takes a lot of willpower not to claw your face off," said Goldberg, a professor at the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. "But my sense of being grossed out was balanced by my scientific curiosity."
Goldberg only noticed the insect three days after his return to the US and removed the insect using a pair of forceps, a mirror and a torch. He then sent it off to have its DNA sequenced and compared it with the archives in the U.S. National Tick Collection at Georgia Southern University (home to the largest tick collection in the world). He found no match.
“Either it’s a species of tick that is known but has never been sequenced, or it’s a new species of tick,” said Goldberg to Science Daily..
Even more remarkably, the discovery helped Goldberg fashion a new theory in his area of study: the spread of disease in primates, and how these disease evolve and cross over to humans.
After finding and removing the tick Goldberg contacted Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University, to find out more about his experience.
Wrangham directed him to a series of high resolution photos of baby chimpanzees. 20 per cent of these showed the young chimps with ticks up their nose – a phenomenon that had not been remarked upon before.
These ticks, from the genus Amblyomma (the same genus to which the tick up Goldberg’s nose belonged) are known disease-carriers, with the nose being their favourite haunt. Chimpanzees are frequent social groomers, removing parasites from each other’s fur as a bonding ritual, but they seldom check noses.
Goldberg’s discovery that these ticks also attempted to leap over to human nostrils was an insight into what he describes as “an underappreciated, indirect, and somewhat weird way in which people and chimps share pathogens.”
And although Goldberg has been studying the chimpanzees of Kibale National Park in Uganda for years, he’s not surprised to have not identified the ticks before.
“It’s not really practical or safe to pick ticks out of chimps’ noses,” said Goldberg. “The chimps of Kibale are very well habituated to humans, but they would still object vigorously.”