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Female ticks (Ixodes scapularis) infected with Borrelia burgdorferi have increased overwintering survival, with implications for tick population growth

Infection with B.burgdorferi may aide in tick survival over winter.


The tick, Ixodes scapularis, vectors pathogens such as Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Over the last few decades I. scapularis has expanded its range, introducing a novel health threat into these areas. Warming temperatures appear to be one cause of its range expansion to the north. However, other factors are also involved. We show that unfed adult female ticks infected with B. burgdorferi have greater overwintering survival than uninfected female ticks. Locally collected adult female ticks were placed in individual microcosms and allowed to overwinter in both forest and dune grass environments. In the spring we collected the ticks and tested both dead and living ticks for B. burgdorferi DNA. Infected ticks had greater overwintering survival compared with uninfected ticks every winter for three consecutive winters in both forest and dune grass environments. We discuss the most plausible explanations for this result. The increased winter survival of adult female ticks could enhance tick population growth. Our results suggest that, in addition to climate change, B. burgdorferi infection itself may be promoting the northern range expansion of I. scapularis. Our study highlights how pathogens could work synergistically with climate change to promote host range expansion.

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