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Lyme disease is common in the northeastern United States, but rare in the southeast, even though the tick vector is found in both regions. Infection prevalence of Lyme spirochetes in host-seeking ticks, an important component to the risk of Lyme disease, is also high in the northeast and northern midwest, but declines sharply in the south. As ticks must acquire Lyme spirochetes from infected vertebrate hosts, the role of wildlife species composition on Lyme disease risk has been a topic of lively academic discussion. We compared tick–vertebrate host interactions using standardized sampling methods among 8 sites scattered throughout the eastern US. Geographical trends in diversity of tick hosts are gradual and do not match the sharp decline in prevalence at southern sites, but tick–host associations show a clear shift from mammals in the north to reptiles in the south. Tick infection prevalence declines north to south largely because of high tick infestation of efficient spirochete reservoir hosts (rodents and shrews) in the north but not in the south. Minimal infestation of small mammals in the south results from strong selective attachment to lizards such as skinks (which are inefficient reservoirs for Lyme spirochetes) in the southern states. Selective host choice, along with latitudinal differences in tick host-seeking behavior and variations in tick densities, explains the geographic pattern of Lyme disease in the eastern US.
Ginsberg HS, Hickling GJ, Burke RL, Ogden NH, Beati L, LeBrun RA, et al. (2021) Why Lyme disease is common in the northern US, but rare in the south: The roles of host choice, host seeking-behavior, and tick density. PLoS Biol 19(1):e3001066. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3001066
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