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Front Cell Infect Microbiol. 2013 Oct 4;3:57. doi: 10.3389/fcimb.2013.00057. eCollection 2013.

Host specialization in ticks and transmission of tick-borne diseases: a review.

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MiVEGEC, Mixed Research Unit 5290 CNRS-IRD-UM1-UM2, Centre IRD Montpellier, France ; Department of Biology, Carleton University Ottawa, ON, Canada.


Determining patterns of host use, and the frequency at which these patterns change, are of key importance if we are to understand tick population dynamics, the evolution of tick biodiversity, and the circulation and evolution of associated pathogens. The question of whether ticks are typically host specialists or host generalists has been subject to much debate over the last half-century. Indeed, early research proposed that morphological diversity in ticks was linked to host specific adaptations and that most ticks were specialists. Later work disputed this idea and suggested that ticks are largely limited by biogeographic conditions and tend to use all locally available host species. The work presented in this review suggests that the actual answer likely lies somewhere between these two extremes. Although recent observational studies support the view that phylogenetically diverse host species share ticks when found on similar ecological ranges, theory on host range evolution predicts that host specialization should evolve in ticks given their life history characteristics. Contemporary work employing population genetic tools to examine host-associated population structure in several tick systems support this prediction and show that simple species records are not enough to determine whether a parasite is a true host generalist; host specialization does evolve in ticks at local scales, but may not always lead to speciation. Ticks therefore seem to follow a pattern of being global generalists, local specialists. Given this, the notion of host range needs to be modified from an evolutionary perspective, where one simply counts the number of hosts used across the geographic distribution, to a more ecological view, where one considers host use at a local scale, if we are to better understand the circulation of tick-borne pathogens and exposure risks for humans and livestock.


Argasidae; Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato; Ixodidae; adaptation; community diversity; epidemiology; population genetic structure; transmission

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