STATESBORO, Ga. — Lots of Georgia Southern University visitors get to see football, but only a chosen few will catch a glimpse of Amblyomma varium.
Fatter than a pecan, and native to South America, it is the parasitic equivalent of a rock star among the nearly 1 million specimens housed in the U.S. National Tick Collection.
“It’s the one everybody comes to see,” said assistant curator Dmitry Apanaskevich. “It’s the largest known species — and it was taken from a sloth.”
Inside a converted house just a stone’s throw from the bustling Russell Student Center, there are rows and rows of drawers and cabinets, each packed with slender jars that contain ticks of every shape and color. Each has been carefully labeled and preserved for eternity in ethanol.
There are 770 distinct species from every corner of the planet.
“It’s the most complete collection, in terms of species, in the entire world,” Apanaskevich said.
The collection, which has specimens dating back to the late 1800s, is owned by the Smithsonian Institution and has been housed in Statesboro — as part of the university’s Institute of Arthropodology and Parasitology – since 1990.
“They’re most famous as vectors of disease,” he said. “But they can also be quite fascinating.”
Visitors come from locales as varied as the ticks they come to study.
“It is a reference collection,” he said. “People come from many places to examine them. A molecular biologist might need DNA. There are people here right now from Turkey.”
Other recent visitors have come from Brazil, Argentina, Portugal and Holland.
“They come from almost everywhere,” he said. “We have people from South Africa coming soon.”
Outside of scientific circles, though, ticks aren’t so popular. The U.S. National Tick Collection’s fan page on Facebook, for example, has “zero” people who “like” it.
Ticks are arachnids, not insects. Their closest relatives include spiders, scorpions and horseshoe crabs.
One of the prettiest (or at least, the most colorful) is the orange fluorescent dermacentor Rhinocerinus, or “rhinoceros tick.”
Some species are quite rare.
“Ticks are animals and they can become extinct like any other species,” Apanaskevich said. “If a species would go extinct, the ticks do, too.”
One of the rarest species lives in Georgia and can be found attached to the endangered gopher tortoise that is vanishing as its unique habitat declines.
Besides being a repository for preserved ticks, the facility also has its share of odd decor.
“Of course, because we have a tick collection, we have ticks everywhere,” he said, gesturing at decor that includes tick paintings, tick mosaics and a stained glass window with an artful rendition of a tick.
There are even ticks coated in gold, awaiting examination under electron microscopes.
Ticks have been collected and studied since at least 1758, when they were described by Swiss naturalist Carl Linnaeus.
Much of the current collection was assembled in the late 1940s by Harry Hoogstraal, a U.S. Navy medical researcher based in Cairo.
“A lot of this was collected by him, and he donated it all to the Smithsonian,” Apanaskevich said.
Ticks have been around at least 100 million years, based on fossilized specimens found encased in amber.
“That is fairly recent in geologic time,” he said. “And those fossils were substantially the same as what we have today.”