A fly without wings! These strange flies are most often seen by hunters and taxidermists but are usually mistaken for ticks. “That last deer we skinned sure had a lot of ticks running around on his belly.”
Neotropical deer keds are ectoparasites of white-tailed deer here in the Southeast. They belong to a highly specialized family of flies known as louse flies, all of which are external parasites of mammals or birds. There are dozens of other species around the world, including sheep keds; Western American deer keds, which parasitize mule deer, and deer keds, Lipoptena cervi, which is a non-native European species that now occurs on deer and elk in the northeastern US.
Neotropical deer keds do have wings at one point in their life. Both males and females are winged when they emerge from their pupal case on the forest floor and immediately begin flying about in search of a host. Once they locate a white-tailed deer, they shed their wings and begin to feed by periodically sucking blood from their host (Look closely at the photo and you can see the stubs of the shed wings.). The females, which are about 1/6 inch long, only produce one larva at a time, and this larva remains inside the body of the female, feeding on secretions from special “milk glands” until it is “born” as a fully mature larva and immediately falls to the ground and pupates.
So how does a curious hunter distinguish between deer keds and ticks? The surest way is to count their legs, six vs eight, but the way the critters are moving around on the animal is another big clue. If they are not attached to the skin of the animal and move about fairly quickly, they are deer keds. If they are firmly attached to the skin, they are ticks. Ticks will disengage and begin to move about on the hide once an animal cools after being harvested, but ticks move more slowly than deer keds. Hunters should also be aware that these displaced ticks are eager to crawl onto the first warm body they come in contact with.
Unlike Neotropical deer keds, which remain active throughout the winter, living on the warm bodies of their hosts, the Bug’s Eye View Newsletter becomes inactive in the winter months. This is the last issue for 2017, but publication will resume next spring.
Thanks to Dr. Jerome Goddard, Extension Medical and Veterinary Entomology Specialist, for his input and suggestions for this article.
Blake Layton, Extension Entomology Specialist, Mississippi State University Extension Service.
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