Tick Microbiomes in Neotropical Forest Fragments Are Best Explained by Tick-Associated and Environmental Factors Rather than Host Blood Source

Kueneman, Jordan G.; Esser, Helen J.; Weiss, Sophie J.; Jansen, Patrick A.; Foley, Janet E.


The composition of tick microbiomes varies both within and among tick species. Whether this variation is intrinsic (related to tick characteristics) or extrinsic (related to vertebrate host and habitat) is poorly understood but important, as microbiota can influence the reproductive success and vector competence of ticks. We aimed to uncover what intrinsic and extrinsic factors best explain the microbial composition and taxon richness of 11 species of neotropical ticks collected from eight species of small mammals in 18 forest fragments across central Panama. Microbial richness varied among tick species, life stages, and collection sites but was not related to host blood source. Microbiome composition was best explained by tick life stage, with bacterial assemblages of larvae being a subset of those of nymphs. Collection site explained most of the bacterial taxa with differential abundance across intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Francisella and Rickettsia were highly prevalent, but their proportional abundance differed greatly among tick species, and we found both positive and negative cooccurrence between members of these two genera. Other tick endosymbionts (e.g., Coxiella and Rickettsiella) were associated with specific tick species. In addition, we detected Anaplasma and Bartonella in several tick species. Our results indicate that the microbial composition and richness of neotropical ticks are principally related to intrinsic factors (tick species and life stage) and collection site. Taken together, our analysis informs how tick microbiomes are structured and can help anchor our understanding of tick microbiomes from tropical environments more broadly.