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Where do ticks originally come from?

Ticks are small parasitic organisms that feed on the blood of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. But where did these problematic pests originally come from? Understanding the evolutionary origins of ticks can provide insights into their biology, behavior, and global distribution.

The Evolutionary Origins of Ticks

Ticks belong to the subclass Acari, a diverse group of mites and ticks within the class Arachnida. Molecular evidence suggests that ticks evolved from predatory mites sometime during the Cretaceous period, between 146 and 66 million years ago. During this time, flowering plants expanded and the number of bird species increased, creating new ecological niches for ticks to occupy.

The oldest tick fossil discovered dates back around 100 million years to the Cretaceous period. This fossilized specimen, named Deinocroton draculi, already exhibited key features of modern hard ticks, suggesting ticks had already diverged from mites by this time.

Ticks are classified into three main families:

  • Ixodidae (hard ticks)
  • Argasidae (soft ticks)
  • Nuttalliellidae

Hard ticks likely evolved first, with soft ticks diverging from hard ticks somewhere between 120-92 million years ago. Soft ticks adapted to fast feeding on bird and reptile hosts in nesting or roosting areas, while hard ticks evolved to slowly feed on a wider range of hosts for long periods of time.

The Spread of Ticks Across the Globe

Ticks likely originated in the Cretaceous period forest ecosystems of the Northern Hemisphere, possibly in what is now Asia. From here, they spread to other continents over millions of years through the migration of bird and mammal hosts.

Some key events in the global spread of tick species include:

  • Around 20 million years ago, migratory birds spread tick species from Eurasia to Australia, the Americas, and Africa.
  • Around 2.5 million years ago in the Pliocene epoch, ticks expanded their range into more northern regions along with mammal hosts.
  • In the Pleistocene epoch starting around 1.8 million years ago, ticks further expanded their ranges with the migration of humans and other mammals across continents and between islands.

Today, different tick species have spread across almost every region of the world. However, the highest diversity of tick species is still found in the tropical and subtropical forests of Asia, Africa, and the Americas – likely similar to the environments where they originally evolved.

The Number of Tick Species in Different Regions

There are currently over 900 recognized species of ticks around the world. The numbers of described species in different regions are:

Region Number of Described Tick Species
Africa 151 species
North America 113 species
South America 139 species
Asia 316 species
Europe 85 species
Australia 76 species

This distribution reflects the likely evolutionary origins of ticks in Asia, as well as the colonization of other continents through mammal migrations over time. However, new tick species are continually being discovered, particularly in the tropics, so these numbers will continue to change.

The Earliest Tick Fossils

The earliest definitive tick fossils come from the Cretaceous period around 100-90 million years ago. Some of the oldest known tick fossils include:

  • Deinocroton draculi – A near complete, well-preserved fossil from Myanmar around 99 million years old. It displays key features of modern hard ticks.
  • Cornupalpatum burmanicum – Partial tick fossils from Myanmar amber around 90-94 million years old.
  • Unnamed tick fossils from New Jersey amber in the United States, around 92 million years old.

These ancient fossils show ticks already exhibited specialized mouthparts for piercing skin and blood feeding, as well as a hardened shield or scutum on their backs. The presence of ticks in the mid-Cretaceous suggests they had already diverged from mites and evolved as specialized parasites.

Where Did Different Tick Genera Originate?

Different tick genera and species originally evolved and diverged in particular regions. Some examples include:

  • Ixodes – The genus containing many important disease-transmitting ticks likely first evolved in East Asia around the late Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary about 66 million years ago.
  • Amblyomma – A genus of hard ticks found throughout the tropics and subtropics, Amblyomma likely originated in Africa or Asia over 40 million years ago and later spread to the Americas.
  • Rhipicephalus – This genus of hard ticks contains about 80 species found worldwide. It likely originated in Africa around 23-5 million years ago during the Miocene epoch.
  • Ornithodoros – The 100+ species in this soft tick genus evolved in the Cretaceous likely between 120-92 million years ago. The group later diversified and spread out of its origin point in Africa.

These represent just a few examples of major tick genera demonstrating a pattern of Cretaceous origins in Africa or Asia, followed by later spread and diversification in other regions.


In summary, ticks likely evolved from predatory mites during the mid-Cretaceous period between 120-92 million years ago. Early ticks like Deinocroton draculi already exhibited adaptations for feeding on the blood of reptiles, birds, and early mammals. From an origin point likely in Asia, ticks gradually spread to other continents over millions of years through animal migrations. Today, over 900 tick species have been identified globally, with the highest diversity in tropical and subtropical forests reminiscent of their environment of origin. Understanding the deep evolutionary origins of ticks can provide greater insights into their biology and why they have become such ubiquitous and impactful human parasites.