Back in 1976, entomologist Julian Shepherd received a delightful gift: 13 ticks. Specifically, they were Argas brumpti, a species of large argasid (soft-shelled) ticks native to dry regions of southern and eastern Africa; these had been collected from caves near Nairobi. Shepherd, an associate professor of biological sciences at Binghamton University, recently published an article in the Journal of Medical Entomology on what happened in the decades since, and his findings are astounding on several levels. First, some of the female ticks lived to the age of 27, "a record for any species of tick," Shepherd writes, per ScienceAlert. The lifespan grabbed headlines in the science community, including at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, but there is more to the story.
Initially, Shepherd allowed the ticks to feed on blood from mice and rabbits, but "he didn’t like doing this because it was awkward for the rabbits," per Entomology Today. As a result, beginning in 1984 he deprived the ticks of food for a full eight years but left them in a stable lab environment, just to see what would happen. The last of the male ticks died after four years, but some females survived the whole time. What happened when Shepherd began feeding those surviving females again was another stunner: One female laid eggs despite being without a male counterpart for four years. "The delay in reproduction likely represents long-term storage of viable sperm," Shepherd writes in his paper, "Also apparently a record for any species of tick."
The mother tick lived 27 years, and her offspring are still alive today, but they are no longer in Shepherd’s care. According to BingUNews, he regifted them to scientists in South Africa for further research. Shepherd credits the ticks' survival to their adaptations in dry, barren areas where years can pass between encounters with other animals. "Research on how organisms master such challenges can inform understanding of how other organisms, including us, might manage similar challenges," Shepherd explained to BingUNews. (Read more science stories.)