The LIfe of Ixy

An Ixy Selfie

As well as provoking an interesting theological exchange between Jan and Enid, my last blog asked what I think is the most important question one can ask in almost every context: Why?

It also made me remember another blog I wrote years ago along similar (not to say identical) lines so, since it’s an early expression of a thread of my thinking that hasn’t shifted much over the years, I’m adding it here to reinforce last month’s point.

In essence, it’s a quick biology lesson. It’s about something that sounds as if it were 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 really 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 briefly 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 a total of 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, (although compared with that of an Emperor penguin, it’s a laugh a minute).

So, as I wrote last month,  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 or less steep 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. Like the Emperor penguin and, indeed, all of us, he doesn’t even have the comfort expressed by Estragon in Waiting for GodotWe always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?’

I suppose he can at least be glad he isn’t an Emperor  penguin.


Umberto Tosi said…
Dark indeed, and fascinating - once again, Bill. I'll save this post about Ixy and forward it to the next person who tries to tell me there's a purpose to everything in creation, even ticks.

BTW - I never gave it much thought, but I didn't realize that ticks are arachnids until just now when noticed that your pictured Ixy has eight legs. I had to check on Wiki. While I am rather fond of spiders on the whole - for their web aesthetics and especially for their pest-control work - I think we could do without ticks in my humble opinion as a lord of the universe wannabe. The only good thing about being a smoker 30 years ago was that one could use a cigarette to burn off a deer tick picked up on a hike.
Susan Price said…
But Bill, if Ixy evolved into something 'with more apparent purpose' he might become a Tory MP. Or even a Tory prime minister. Better, a thousand times better, a sheep tick. At least a tick can be open about his blood-sucking.
Bill Kirton said…
More proof, Umberto, of the seemingly self-defeating nature of evolution. The decrease in smokers (‘good thing’) has occasioned an increase in ticks (bad thing).
And Susan, for a change, your habitually flawless observations seem to be slightly less rigorous. Unless I’ve misread you, you seem to imply that one of the attributes of ‘a Tory MP. Or even a Tory prime minister’ is to have ‘apparent purpose’. Surely, current events demonstrate that even the qualifier ‘apparent’ cannot obscure the total absence of such an impulse in the species you identify (and, we must recognize, species variants of alternative persuasions).
Nonetheless, I’m very grateful to both of you for your indulgence of my obsessions.
Jan Needle said…
If we're going to talk Brexit, I'm going to pop out to see if I can find a tick to mate with. I'm on one of the Canary Islands (not the Isle Of Dogs, the other sort) but I guess they have them here. And I know you're not meant to have sex with the little bleeders (in reverse) but I sort of did once, in a tent up Glencoe way. Didn't know it till we were back in the Glasgow flat a few days later, when a small blood blister (a Black Bob in Pompey parlance) was noticed nestling in the hairs upon my chest. Ooh, sez she - what's that? We had no idea, but two days later it had grown to the size of a glossy black pea. And when she tentatively touched it, the bloody thing got up and walked away on these spidery black legs. Didn't get far - no one makes off with a gallon of my precious blood and lives - and any after effects remain mercifully obscure. Just goes to show though, don't it? Avoid holidays, whether in a northern glen or an Atlantic island. Maybe Brexit is my fault after all? Well bloody ang me....
Bill Kirton said…
Under normal circumstances, Jan, I would have been alarmed, concerned, even sympathetic at your terrifying tale of poitrinal infestation, but you’re on a Canary Island and I’m not.
Lynne Garner said…
Fab post thank you. Also very helpful as I'm working on my first cosy crime and one of the big clues is a sheep tick.
Enid Richemont said…
There is a wonderful pop-up picture book by Jan Pienkowski called "DINNER TIME" which does actually explain quite a lot, but which sadly (or maybe wisely) omits a pop-up tic. And to our own Jan - what a horrifying story, but echoing Bill's feelings, you are on a Canary island. which does limit my sympathy somewhat.

Lynne - what exactly is 'cosy crime'? Is it sitting on a goose down cushion with a large glass of something nice while phishing for my bank details?
Sandra Horn said…
I've had a word with my mate Ixy about this. He says the sex makes it all worthwhile - an 'end' (ho ho) it itself.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks again, all. Good choice of clue, Lynne – there’ll be blood everywhere.
I agree about the Jan Pienkowski book, Enid. I think including Ixy, though, might have challenged the narrative timeline a bit. And Sandra, I wish I’d consulted you before posting the blog. Your intimate knowledge of Ixy’s carnal relationships would have made it so much more exciting.
Susan Price said…
Bill - I concede. Science, after all, must be ready to admit fault. It is true that no Tory MP at present is demonstrating any purpose or fitness whatsoever.
Bill Kirton said…
Not many of the other lot are either, Susan. But, in case you (or others) haven't seen it, in order to show that there are some politicians who DO KNOW HOW TO BEHAVE, this is worth watching:

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