OK, for a change, here’s a quick biology lesson. It’s about something that sounds as if it was a warrior in some ancient battle – Ixodes ricinus. But we know it better as a sheep tick. (By the way, the ricinus part of the name is a bit sinister. It relates to its other common name, the castor bean tick, and it’s from castor beans that you get that horrible poison, ricin, which, of course, features in my novel The Darkness.) Anyway, Ixy, as we’ll fondly call it, is a very common tick indeed. It can live for anything between two and six years.
It starts life as one of a couple of thousand eggs, hatches out as a larva (with its 1,999 brothers and sisters), and is ready to feed within a few days. So it climbs up a nearby plant, grass stem or whatever, and waits. Eventually (after maybe minutes, maybe days), it smells butyric acid, which tells it that a mammal is nearby and, as the animal brushes past the grass, Ixy leaps onto it and starts gorging itself on blood. This lasts for 2 or 3 days, during which it puts on weight and is eventually 10 to 20 times heavier than when it started.
When it’s had enough, it drops off and, after several months, it becomes a nymph. During those months, it doesn’t eat, mate, play football, watch movies or anything. It just gets older. So far, remember, it’s had just one meal. Not surprisingly, then, the following year it feels peckish again, climbs up another stalk and waits for a bigger animal to come along. The first snack was from something like a vole, this time it might choose a squirrel and the meal will last longer – 4 to 5 days – then it’s back to the undergrowth.
Finally, as adults, Ixy and his pals climb even higher and wait for larger animals from hares up to deer. The females then go to town, feasting for about a week and sucking down up to 5 ml of blood. Ixy, being a male, hangs around for longer but only takes small snacks because he’s busy mating with every Ixy female he can persuade into thinking it’s a good idea.
Then the female drops off, lays her eggs and dies. Ixy just drops off and dies. He doesn’t even get to see his kids. Remember, all this can take two years or six. Two or six years of hanging about, climbing up bits of grass, having three meals, mating, then dying. Now, apart from the mating bit, which I’m guessing doesn’t involve much foreplay, that doesn’t sound like a very interesting way to spend a life, so the question that always strikes me when I read of the wonders of nature and the processes of evolution is – Why?
And, of course, simply by asking that question, I’m back with my old mate Sisyphus and his rock. What on earth is the point of it all? Maybe evolution is making the hill smaller with each ‘advance’, but why? What’s it for? I don’t suppose Ixy is much of a thinker but if he is I bet he’s cursing God for making him a sheep tick when he could have been something with more apparent purpose like an Aardvark or a merchant banker. Imagine his thought processes as he dangles there on his bit of grass, feeling hungry and just waiting. He doesn’t even have the comfort expressed by Estragon in Waiting for Godot ‘We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?’
Good fun, though, isn’t it?