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PLoS One. 2012;7(10):e47131. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0047131. Epub 2012 Oct 5.

Abiotic and biotic factors associated with tick population dynamics on a mammalian host: Ixodes hexagonus infesting otters, Lutra lutra.

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Organisms and the Environment, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK.


The Eurasian otter, Lutra lutra, hosts several parasites with zoonotic potential. As this semiaquatic mammal has large ranges across terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats, it has the capacity for wide dispersion of pathogens. Despite this, parasites of otters have received relatively little attention. Here, we examine their ectoparasite load and assess whether this is influenced by abiotic or biotic variables. Climatic phenomena such as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) affect weather conditions in northern Europe. Consequently parasite distributions, particularly species with life stages exposed to the external environment, can be affected. We assessed the extent to which inter-annual variations in large-scale weather patterns (specifically the NAO and Central England (CE) temperatures) and host characteristics influenced tick prevalence and intensity. Ectoparasites consisted of a single species, the nidiculous tick Ixodes hexagonus (prevalence = 24.3%; mean intensity = 7.2; range = 1-122; on n = 820 otter hosts). The prevalence, but not intensity of infestation, was associated with high CE temperatures, while both prevalence and intensity were associated with positive phases of the NAO. Such associations indicate that I. hexagonus are most abundant when weather conditions are warmer and wetter. Ticks were more prevalent on juvenile than sub-adult or adult otters, which probably reflects the length of time the hosts spend in the holt where these ticks quest. High tick number was associated with poor host condition, so either poor condition hosts are more susceptible to ticks, or tick infestations negatively impact on host condition. Otters are clearly an important and common host for I. hexagonus, which has implications for vector-borne diseases. This work is the first to consider the impacts of long-term weather patterns on I. hexagonus and uses wild-animal cadavers to illustrate the importance of abiotic and biotic pressures impacting parasitic populations.

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