Do spiders make your skin crawl?
Don’t read on!
Afraid of snakes?
Head back now!
For those of you deciding to stick around you’ve reached Part 2 of “Danger of Kentucky Archaeology”- the creepy-crawly edition. Just like in Part 1, many of these dangers are present around the world yet Kentucky is ripe with critters that can make an archaeologist gear up with extra bug spray, long pants, and boots in order to protect themselves from these hazards.
TICKS & CHIGGERS
If looking at a photo of a tick or chigger makes you think “Spider!,” then you are on the right track towards classifying these pests. Both ticks and chiggers belong to the arachnid family, and are some of the most dreaded pests of archaeologists- but each for their own reasons:
Ticks are well known as bearers of disease: the CDC lists 16 tick-borne diseases in the United States that humans may catch from a tick bite including those that are well known, like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, but also a few others that are rare or have only recently been classified. These include the Heartland virus, the Bourbon virus (named after a county in Kansas, not Kentucky’s native spirit), and Alpha-Gal, WHICH MAKES A PERSON ALLERGIC TO MEAT!!!
Often after a day in the field, archaeologists will conduct “Tick Checks” to ensure no one has picked up an unwanted guest. If an interloper is found, and attached, the best course of action is to grasp the tick at the base of its head with some tweezers and slowly and gently pull it off. Most other methods of removing a tick will cause it to regurgitate its stomach contents, increasing your chances of receiving a tick-borne disease1. No one wants that!
Chiggers, on the other hand, do not transmit disease and viruses to humans in the US2 like their tick brethren. Yet, they can still be frightening to an archaeologist.
Why, you might ask?
To put it simply, chiggers turn your cells to soup and make you itch like mad for days!
In scientific speak: chigger larvae inject their saliva, which has digestive enzymes, into a person’s skin causing the skin cells to dissolve so they can be ingested by the chigger. Yum! Usually 3 to 6 hours after this occurs, a person will begin to feel the effects of the chiggers’ meal, and they may continue to feel these affects for a week or more. I myself have experienced this more than once, and let me tell you, it was an itchy experience!
There are still many myths that persist about chiggers (e.g., that they burrow into your skin and can be suffocated with nail polish). Usually the red welts associated with chigger bites will show up around a person’s ankles (see photo to the right) or waist band as tight clothing attracts the critters. The best thing to do after a long day of fieldwork is to wash off with soap and warm water to get chiggers off as soon as possible.
In order to ward off ticks and chiggers, many archaeologists also take preventative measures before walking in the woods or tall grass for fieldwork. This is why you may see some questionable clothing choices, like pants tucked into socks, and even duct tape tightly securing ones pants around the ankles. Other preventative measures include preparing clothing beforehand with insecticides like permethrin, or spraying oneself with repellents that have DEET before entering the field.
There are several things I learned the summer I got bitten by a copperhead: 1. Experts believe tourniquets and venom extraction devices likely do more harm than good for a victim of a snake bite (and my bruised ankle would agree), 2. There is a difference between calling a snake venomous (i.e., snakes that inject toxin into their prey) versus poisonous (i.e., toxic when you eat or touch the snake), and 3. I am much calmer than my mother in a time of crisis.
While I was not out in the field as an archaeologist when I was bitten, I can attest to the fact that this is one of the reasons it is important for an archaeologist to wear boots and why it is always smart to bring a buddy along. Like most places in the eastern United States, Kentucky has several venomous snakes. Snakes such as the copperhead and the timber rattlesnake can be found throughout the state, while the western cottonmouth and the western pigmy rattlesnake are found only in western Kentucky.
The best way to prevent a bite from a snake is to be aware of your surroundings, and wear protective clothing when intruding into their habitats. If a person is bitten, the best action is to get the victim to a doctor straight away3.
If you are interested in learning more about the variety of venomous and non-venomous snakes in Kentucky, check out the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s Kentucky Snakes book online!
Wait… scorpions? Yes! Kentucky does have scorpions.
Luckily, in Kentucky we only have one scorpion, the Southern Devil Scorpion4. It is commonly found in rocky hillsides, crawl spaces, leaf litter, tall grass, and log piles. These scorpions hunt at night and rarely interact with people, so in reality they are not really a threat to archaeologists, but might be to late night looters! The Southern Devil Scorpions are non-aggressive, but will strike if touched leaving a sharp pain for 15 minutes to an hour, but it is not deadly like scorpions found in the west. You can check out a video of the Southern Devil Scorpion here.
2- Currently, chiggers found in the US do not transmit diseases, but those found in Asia can transmit diseases
Photo Credits (in order of appearance):
- “Tick” by John Tann, licensed under CC BY 2.0
- Larval Chigger, Public Domain
- Chigger bites, photo by Karen Stevens
- “More of that Southern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix), Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center, Humble, Texas” by Patrick Feller, licensed under CC BY 2.0
By: Karen Stevens