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Animal behavior can have profound effects on pathogen transmission and disease incidence. We studied the questing (= host-seeking) behavior of blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) nymphs, which are the primary vectors of Lyme disease in the eastern United States. Lyme disease is common in northern but not in southern regions, and prior ecological studies have found that standard methods used to collect host-seeking nymphs in northern regions are unsuccessful in the south. This led us to hypothesize that there are behavior differences between northern and southern nymphs that alter how readily they are collected, and how likely they are to transmit the etiological agent of Lyme disease to humans. To examine this question, we compared the questing behavior of I. scapularis nymphs originating from one northern (Lyme disease endemic) and two southern (non-endemic) US regions at field sites in Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Florida. Laboratory-raised uninfected nymphs were monitored in circular 0.2 m2 arenas containing wooden dowels (mimicking stems of understory vegetation) for 10 (2011) and 19 (2012) weeks. The probability of observing nymphs questing on these stems (2011), and on stems, on top of leaf litter, and on arena walls (2012) was much greater for northern than for southern origin ticks in both years and at all field sites (19.5 times greater in 2011; 3.6–11.6 times greater in 2012). Our findings suggest that southern origin I. scapularis nymphs rarely emerge from the leaf litter, and consequently are unlikely to contact passing humans. We propose that this difference in questing behavior accounts for observed geographic differences in the efficacy of the standard sampling techniques used to collect questing nymphs. These findings also support our hypothesis that very low Lyme disease incidence in southern states is, in part, a consequence of the type of host-seeking behavior exhibited by southern populations of the key Lyme disease vector.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication 1.0 License.