Lake Michigan insights from island studies: the roles of chipmunks and coyotes in maintaining Ixodes scapularis and Borrelia burgdorferi in the absence of white-tailed deer

Ticks Tick Borne Dis. 2021 Sep;12(5):101761. doi: 10.1016/j.ttbdis.2021.101761. Epub 2021 Jun 6.


Deer management (e.g., reduction) has been proposed as a tool to reduce the acarological risk of Lyme disease. There have been few opportunities to investigate Ixodes scapularis (blacklegged tick) and Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto dynamics in the absence of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in midwestern North America. A pair of islands in Lake Michigan presented a unique opportunity to study the role of alternative hosts for the adult stage of the blacklegged tick for maintaining a tick population as a deer herd exists on North Manitou Island but not on South Manitou Island, where coyotes (Canis latrans) and hares (Lepus americanus) are the dominant medium mammals. Additionally, we were able to investigate the maintenance of I. scapularis and B. burgdorferi in small mammal communities on both islands, which were dominated by eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus). From 2011 to 2015, we surveyed both islands for blacklegged ticks by drag cloth sampling, bird mist netting, and small and medium-sized mammal trapping. We assayed questing ticks, on-host ticks, and mammal biopsies for the Lyme disease pathogen, B. burgdorferi. We detected all three life stages of the blacklegged tick on both islands. Of the medium mammals sampled, no snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus, 0/23) were parasitized by adult blacklegged ticks, but 2/2 coyotes (Canis latrans) sampled on South Manitou Island in 2014 were parasitized by adult blacklegged ticks, suggesting that coyotes played a role in maintaining the tick population in the absence of deer. We also detected I. scapularis ticks on passerine birds from both islands, providing support that birds contribute to maintaining as well as introducing blacklegged ticks and B. burgdorferi to the islands. We observed higher questing adult and nymphal tick densities, and higher B. burgdorferi infection prevalence in small mammals and in adult ticks on the island with deer as compared to the deer-free island. On the islands, we also found that 25% more chipmunks were tick-infested than mice, fed more larvae and nymphs relative to their proportional abundance compared to mice, and thus may play a larger role compared to mice in the maintenance of B. burgdorferi. Our investigation demonstrated that alternative hosts could maintain a local population of blacklegged ticks and an enzootic cycle of the Lyme disease bacterium in the absence of white-tailed deer. Thus, alternative adult blacklegged tick hosts should be considered when investigating deer-targeted management tools for reducing tick-borne disease risk, especially when the alternative host community may be abundant and diverse.

Keywords: Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto; Eastern chipmunk; Island; Ixodes scapularis; Lyme disease; White-tailed deer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacterial Zoonoses
  • Birds / microbiology
  • Borrelia burgdorferi*
  • Coyotes / microbiology*
  • Deer / microbiology
  • Disease Reservoirs
  • Host Specificity
  • Islands
  • Ixodes / microbiology*
  • Lakes
  • Life Cycle Stages
  • Lyme Disease / transmission
  • Mammals / microbiology
  • Sciuridae / microbiology*
  • Tick Infestations / veterinary
  • United States