How general are generalist parasites? The small mammal part of the Lyme disease transmission cycle in two ecosystems in northern Europe

Oecologia. 2019 May;190(1):115-126. doi: 10.1007/s00442-019-04411-2. Epub 2019 May 6.


The pathogens causing Lyme disease are all vectored by generalist tick species found on a wide range of vertebrates, but spatial and annual variation in host use has rarely been quantified. We here compare the load of Ixodes ricinus (the vector) on small mammals and investigate the infection prevalence of Borrelia burgdorferi s.l. (the pathogen) involved in the enzootic transmission cycle of Lyme disease in two contrasting ecosystems in Norway from 2014 to 2016. The most common larval tick host in the eastern region was the bank vole, while the common shrew dominated in the western region of Norway. However, the wood mouse and the bank vole had consistently higher larval tick loads than the common shrew in both ecosystems. Hence, the evidence indicated that species are differently suitable as hosts, regardless of their abundances. The pathogen infection prevalence was similar among small mammal species, but markedly higher in the region with larger small mammal populations and higher tick loads, while the seasonal and annual variation was less marked. Our study indicated that the generalist I. ricinus shows consistent patterns of load on species of small vertebrate hosts, while B. burgdorferi s.l. (B. afzelii) was a true generalist. The similar roles of host species across regions suggest that disease dynamics can be predicted from host community composition, but predicting the role of host community composition for disease dynamics requires a detailed understanding of the different species population limitations under global change.

Keywords: Borrelia burgdorferi; Density dependence; Ixodes ricinus; Lyme borreliosis; Seasonality; Transmission cycle.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Borrelia burgdorferi Group*
  • Ecosystem
  • Europe
  • Ixodes*
  • Lyme Disease*
  • Mammals
  • Mice
  • Norway
  • Parasites*