Journal article Open Access

Evaluating functional dispersal and its eco-epidemiological implications in a nest ectoparasite

Rataud, Amalia; Dupraz, Marlène; Toty, Céline; Blanchon, Thomas; Vittecoq, Marion; Choquet, Rémi; McCoy, Karen D.

Functional dispersal (between-site movement, with or without subsequent reproduction) is a key trait acting on the ecological and evolutionary trajectories of a species, with potential cascading effects on other members of the local community. It is often difficult to quantify, and particularly so for small organisms such as parasites. Understanding this life history trait can help us identify the drivers of population dynamics and, in the case of vectors, the circulation of associated infectious agents. In the present study, functional dispersal of the soft tick Ornithodoros maritimus was studied at small scale, within a colony of yellow-legged-gulls (Larus michahellis). Previous work showed a random distribution of infectious agents in this tick at the within-colony scale, suggesting frequent tick movement among nests. This observation contrasts with the presumed strong endophilic nature described for this tick group. By combining an experimental field study, where both nest success and tick origin were manipulated, with Capture-Mark-Recapture modeling, dispersal rates between nests were estimated taking into account both tick capture probability and survival, and considering an effect of tick sex. As expected, tick survival probability was higher in successful nests, where hosts were readily available for the blood meal, than in unsuccessful nests, but capture probability was lower. Dispersal was low overall, regardless of nest state or tick sex, and there was no evidence for tick homing behavior; ticks from foreign nests did not disperse more than ticks in their nest of origin. These results confirm the strong endophilic nature of this tick species, highlighting the importance of life cycle plasticity for adjusting to changes in host availability. However, results also raise questions with respect to the previously described within-colony distribution of infectious agents in ticks, suggesting that tick dispersal either occurs over longer temporal scales and/or that transient host movements outside the breeding period result in vector exposure to a diverse range of infectious agents.

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