Journal of Medical Entomology 2011

Regional variation in tick parasitism on migrating North American songbirds: implications for the spread of the Lyme pathogen, Borrelia burgdorferi

RJ Brinkerhoff, CM Folsom O’Keefe, HM Streby, SJ Bent, K Tsao, MA Diuk-Wasser

Abstract: Borrelia burgdorferi, the etiological agent of Lyme disease, is transmitted among hosts by the black-legged tick, Ixodes scapularis, a species that regularly parasitizes various vertebrate hosts, including birds, in its immature stages. Lyme disease risk in the United States is highest in the Northeast and in the upper Midwest where I. scapularis ticks are most abundant. Because birds might be important to the range expansion of I. scapularis and B. burgdorferi, we explored spatial variation in patterns of I. scapularis parasitism on songbirds, as well as B. burgdorferi infection in bird-derived I. scapularis larvae. We sampled birds at 23 sites in the eastern United States to describe seasonal patterns of I. scapularis occurrence on birds, and we screened a subset of I. scapularis larvae for presence of B. burgdorferi. Timing of immature I. scapularis occurrence on birds is consistent with regional variation in host-seeking activity with a generally earlier peak in larval parasitism on birds in the Midwest. Significantly more I. scapularis larvae occurred on birds that were contemporaneously parasitized by nymphs in the Midwest than the Northeast, and the proportion of birds that yielded B. burgdorferi-infected larvae was also higher in the Midwest. We conclude that regional variation in immature I. scapularis phenology results in different temporal patterns of parasitism on birds, potentially resulting in differential importance of birds to B. burgdorferi transmission dynamics among regions.