In this May 31, 2018, file photo, a bull moose walks through the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge in Wentworth's Location, N.H. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

By now, many Mainers have heard about winter ticks, and have learned that some of our moose end up with thousands of those ticks on them. We’ve also heard that in some cases, those high tick loads can actually kill the host moose.

But how do all those ticks get on a moose to begin with?

The answer, which was discussed during a Wednesday session at the 53rd North American Moose Conference at Sugarloaf resort, may surprise you. It may gross you out. Or, it may do both.

Those high tick loads aren’t born upon a moose’s back. Instead, they hop on, en masse, and set up housekeeping.

Tim Thomas, a district wildlife biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, explained the “questing” activity at a public forum during the conference.

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“Those ticks hatch in the fall, and then as a group they’ll climb up vegetation to what, three meters or so?” he said, asking his fellow biologists for confirmation. “And as a group they’ll sit there until something walks by or brushes by, and then they’ll jump on, and they’ll pull everybody else with them. That’s what we call ‘questing.’”

That means a moose can go from tick-free to totally infested in a matter of seconds. (I told you this might gross you out.)

“So when [moose] walk by, they can get thousands and thousands of ticks, just by walking by one brush, and having all of those ticks hop on at one time.”

There is a way for Mother Nature to equalize things, however. Early snowfall can provide just the protective buffer the moose need.

“When you have snowfall early, it knocks that vegetation down and knocks the ticks down on the ground, where they’re not able to get on the animals,” Thomas said. “So the longer you have a snow-free period in the fall, the longer those times those baby ticks can sit up there on the vegetation and wait for a passing animal to get on.”

Kristine Rines, moose project leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, said there’s another natural condition that can take a toll on ticks: Drought.

“The other variable, which is more positive, when the ticks are questing in late fall, if you have drought, they die. The ticks simply can’t survive,” Rines said. “So [if there is] a good drought in the fall, you might not be able to take a shower, but ticks are dying, and that’s good for moose.”

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John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...