Publications

Local host-tick coextinction in neotropical forest fragments

Esser, Helen J.; Herre, Edward Allen; Kays, Roland; Liefting, Yorick; Jansen, Patrick A.

Summary

Ticks are obligatory parasites with complex life cycles that often depend on larger bodied vertebrates as final hosts. These traits make them particularly sensitive to local coextinction with their host. Loss of wildlife abundance and diversity should thus lead to loss of tick abundance and diversity to the point where only generalist tick species remain. However, direct empirical tests of these hypotheses are lacking, despite their relevance to our understanding of tick-borne disease emergence in disturbed environments. Here, we compare vertebrate and tick communities across 12 forest islands and peninsulas in the Panama Canal that ranged 1000-fold in size (2.6–2811.3 ha). We used drag sampling and camera trapping to directly assess the abundance and diversity of communities of questing ticks and vertebrate hosts. We found that the abundance and species richness of ticks were positively related to those of wildlife. Specialist tick species were only present in fragments where their final hosts were found. Further, less diverse tick communities had a higher relative abundance of the generalist tick species Amblyomma oblongoguttatum, a potential vector of spotted fever group rickettsiosis. These findings support the host-parasite coextinction hypothesis, and indicate that loss of wildlife can indeed have cascading effects on tick communities. Our results also imply that opportunities for pathogen transmission via generalist ticks may be higher in habitats with degraded tick communities. If these patterns are general, then tick identities and abundances serve as useful bioindicators of ecosystem health, with low tick diversity reflecting low wildlife diversity and a potentially elevated risk of interspecific disease transmission via remaining host species and generalist ticks.